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Golden Hammer: U.S. paid $5 million for incinerators that sit idle in Afghanistan

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More than $5 million of taxpayer money went up in smoke because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers bought garbage incinerators in Afghanistan that have never been used and are now being dismantled, an investigation found.

The Army paid full price for two incinerators at the Sharana forward operating base in Afghanistan that, despite a 30-month delay, have yet to be switched on, according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. top watchdog for the country.

"We spent $5.4 million dollars, the machines were never turned on and never used. So basically, the only thing that was ever burned in that incinerator was taxpayer dollars," John Sopko, the special inspector general for the Afghan mission, told The Washington Times.

By the time the construction was completed, the project had already had seen 896 days of delays. Corps of Engineers officials blamed the delay on the contractor building the incinerators, stating that, among other problems, the company was suspended for 62 days for not having qualified safety, health and quality control personnel on site.

Yet that didn't stop the Army from paying for the incinerator in full at a cost of $5.4 million, despite the fact that military officials "told us they never conducted a test of the incinerators to ensure they were operational and met contract requirements," the investigative report said.

That meant the Corps didn't notice potentially dangerous electrical problems with the equipment that were later found by a second contractor — problems that could cost another $1 million to fix.

Even if the incinerators were operating, investigators said they could only handle about 80 percent of the load that was originally planned.

And in what may have been the worst news for base personnel, the incinerators were built with a loading area that was too narrow. It meant there was no room to use trash haulers or forklifts. If the incinerators were ever to be actually used, people would have had to manually load the waste by hand.

For burning taxpayer money on delayed, defective and unused equipment, the Army Corps of Engineers wins this week's Golden Hammer, a distinction awarded by The Washington Times to examples of fiscal waste, fraud and abuse.

Now the incinerators are being dismantled. With a drawdown in U.S. troops set by President Obama, control of the Sharana base is being handed over to the Afghans. They have neither the interest nor the funding to operate the incinerators, Mr. Sopko said, meaning the multimillion dollar pieces of equipment will be disassembled without ever being used.

Corps officials said they reviewed the purchase and construction of the Sharana facilities, but found nothing wrong.

"The incinerator facility at FOB Sharana was constructed in accordance with contract technical specifications, proper testing and training occurred in or about September 2012, and an operable facility was turned over to our U.S. military customer in December 2012 ," the Army office said in response to the IG's criticisms. "None of [the Corps'] contracting personnel assigned to provide oversight on this contract failed to appropriately perform their assigned duties on the contract."

It's not the first time investigators have found problems with incinerators. In April, the Corps of Engineers also won the Golden Hammer for the exact same thing: $5 million spent on an incinerator that was never used, this time for the Salerno forward operating base.

And in July, Mr. Sopko's investigators found a third case at Camp Leatherneck where officials spent $11.5 million for incinerators but barely used them, instead still relying on burn pits.

In Sharana, the base also did not use the incinerators, the IG's office said. Instead, personnel still rely on open-air burn pits that have raised health concerns for American troops due to the toxic chemicals they can release into the air. Those concerns led the Pentagon in 2011 to limit the use of burn pits, regulations investigators say the Sharana base is now violating.

After finding three separate incidences of problems with incinerators, the Afghan IG is planning a more widespread investigation to see how prevalent the problem is on other military bases in Afghanistan.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

About the Author
Phillip Swarts

Phillip Swarts

Phillip Swarts is an investigative reporter for The Washington Times, covering fiscal waste, fraud and political ethics. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and previously worked as an investigative reporter for the Washington Guardian. Phillip can be reached at pswarts@washingtontimes.com.

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