Lawmakers push for burn pit benefits related to Kosovo deployments

by Tommy Grant

Senate lawmakers are pressing Veterans Affairs officials to take a closer look at possible military toxic exposure injuries for troops who served in Kosovo in the late 1990s and beyond.

On Wednesday, senators unanimously adopted an amendment to their annual VA appropriations plan that would mandate a new department review of “toxic exposure risk activities while serving in Kosovo.” The move could potentially pave the way for benefits for thousands of veterans who deployed to the central European country over the last few decades.

Of particular concern are the potential lingering effects of toxic smoke from burn pits used in the country to dispose of household waste and other materials.

The dangers of burn pit fumes have been highlighted following their widespread use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Last year, as part of the Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics Act — better known as the PACT Act — Congress expanded veterans disability benefits for 12 types of cancer and 12 other respiratory illnesses linked to the toxic smoke in those areas of operation.

Kosovo, however, was not among places where long-term respiratory illnesses and cancers are presumably linked to military duties. At least 25,000 active-duty and National Guard troops have been deployed to Kosovo over the last 20 years, according to Defense Department data.

In a letter to VA leadership in May, a group of House and Senate Democratic members listed a host of concerns about the long-term health threats for troops sent to the region.

“[In Kosovo] civilians regularly dump tires, plastic, rubber, gas cans, batteries, household trash, and industrial trash,” they wrote. “According to documentation originating from various NATO Kosovo Force bases provided to our offices from the National Guard, when the trash is burned, wind blows smoke from the dump directly above [U.S. sites] at all hours of the day and night, exposing service members to smoke inhalation.”

The new language would require that VA collect and report on air quality findings in the region, sickness and mortality reports on veterans who served there, and potential changes to department rules to better assist affected individuals.

But the measure still faces a long legislative path before becoming law.

The VA budget bill is being considered with a pair of other federal spending measures and expected to pass through the Senate in coming days. House lawmakers did not include any provisions to Kosovo in their VA appropriations plan passed in July, and will have to reconsider the issue during negotiations with the Senate.

Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.

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