- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2014

A big chunk of taxpayer investment in Afghanistan could go up in smoke because American-paid contractors built structures in danger of catching fire, a new investigation has found.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has spent $1.57 billion constructing roughly 2,000 buildings for the Afghan military forces to use as offices, classrooms, medical centers, barracks and — ironically — fire stations.

But as many as 1,600 aren’t built to match international building code standards, largely due to the use of foam insulation that poses a “significant fire hazard,” the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported Thursday.

The Corps has been fixing the problems in some of the structures, but as many of 700 of them are still at risk. Fixing all of the buildings could take an additional $50 million to $60 million.

“While I am primarily concerned that people’s lives may be at risk, I am also concerned that USACE must now spend millions of taxpayer dollars correcting this problem because USACE did not enforce and properly administer its own contracts,” Inspector General John F. Sopko said.

For risking Afghan lives and hundreds of millions in taxpayer money, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wins this week’s Golden Hammer, a distinction from The Washington Times highlighting examples of federal misspending, waste, fraud or abuse.

There have already been two fires that completely destroyed buildings — both in 2012 The structures were still under construction at the time and not being used. A SIGAR spokesperson said no one was reported injured.

USACE Maj. Gen. Michael Eyre sent a memo in January saying it was “an acceptable risk level” to turn the buildings over to the Afghan military because “the typical occupant populations for these facilities are young, fit Afghan soldiers and recruits who have the physical ability to make a hasty retreat during a developing situation.”

That didn’t sit well with Mr. Sopko.

“I am very troubled by such logic, which seems to argue that fire hazards for a building are somehow remediated by the youthful speed and vigor of the occupants,” he wrote in a letter to the Corps, noting that many of the buildings are sleeping quarters and medical facilities, where it might take occupants longer to exit a burning structure.

Last year, SIGAR took the rare step to issue a public safety warning about the buildings, stating that they pose a “serious fire and life safety risk.”

USACE officials said that they’re working to correct a few problems identified in some of the structures but largely disagreed with the investigators’ evaluation, stating that the buildings all at least partially met International Building Code (IBC) and would give occupants enough time to evacuate in the event of a fire.

In the meantime, the Pentagon shouldn’t delay turning the structures over to the Afghans, a response from USACE said.

“The need to turn over facilities on time … during 2014 is critical for transitioning security operation of Afghanistan” to the Afghan National Army, the response said.

The buildings, known as “arch span” or “K span” structures, are long with a round roof and were chosen by the Army because they are usually cheaper and quicker to construct than other types. USACE guidance at the time said that construction should meet the “standard designs, which are in accordance with the IBC.”

But SIGAR officials said that contractors hired to build the structures were often given incomplete instructions by Corps officials and that the USACE “personnel tasked with approving contractor construction proposals were not sufficiently familiar with arch-span construction or IBC standards.”

Because most of the buildings are designed to be used as barracks, SIGAR has suggested that troops might want to set up some type of “fire watch” to keep an eye out for emergencies when most of the troops are sleeping.

“USACE’s apparent failure to enforce its own contract requirements seems to have resulted in tens of millions of dollars in additional costs and significant construction delays,” Mr. Sopko said. “Moreover, I am concerned that the rush to complete these buildings has led USACE to disregard its own safety standards and, in so doing, has jeopardized the lives of ANA personnel.”