News Briefs – June 22, 2018


Appeals court tosses veterans’ lawsuits over burn pits

Military veterans who claim that the use of open burn pits during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan caused myriad health problems cannot move forward with dozens of lawsuits against a military contractor, a federal appeals court ruled June 20.
A three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with a federal judge in Maryland, who last year threw out the lawsuits brought against KBR, a former Halliburton Corp. subsidiary.
More than 60 lawsuits allege that KBR’s practice of dumping tires, batteries, medical waste and other materials into open burn pits created harmful smoke that caused neurological problems, cancers and other health issues in more than 800 service members. The lawsuits, which were filed in multiple districts around the country and then consolidated, also alleged that at least 12 service members died from illnesses caused by the burn pits.
Like the lower court judge, the appeals court panel found that the lawsuits are barred under a legal doctrine holding that courts are not equipped to decide political questions; only Congress and the president have the power to resolve those.
The panel found that the military had unrestricted control over KBR so that KBR’s decisions on waste management and water services were “de facto military decisions” not appropriate for judicial review.
“The facts found by the district court plainly show that KBR had little to no discretion in choosing how to manage the waste,” Judge Henry F. Floyd wrote for the panel in the 3-0 ruling. “The military mandated the use of burn pits as a matter of military judgment. KBR could not unilaterally choose to use landfills, recycling, or incinerators instead.”
During arguments before the 4th Circuit last month, Susan Burke, a lawyer for the service members, argued that KBR repeatedly violated the terms of its contract with the military to handle waste disposal. She said KBR also disobeyed a military directive against burning hazardous materials.
Burke said she and the veterans are disappointed in the court’s ruling. She declined to say whether they plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.
KBR’s attorney, Warren Harris, told the court that the decision to use burn pits was made by the military, which also made decisions on where the pits would be located, what hours they would operate and what would be burned. AP

Air Force clears B-1B bomber fleet to resume operations

The U.S. Air Force says its B-1B bombers will resume flight operations this week after an emergency landing by one of the bombers grounded the fleet nearly two weeks ago.
The Air Force Global Strike Command commander ordered the B-1B fleet grounded June 7 after a safety investigation showed a problem with ejection seat components following the May 1 emergency landing in Texas.
The Air Force fleet has 62 B-1Bs stationed at bases including Dyess Air Force Base in Texas; Edwards Air Force Base in California; Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota; Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada; and Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma.
Eighth Air Force Commander Maj. Gen. Thomas Bussiere says he’s confident the fleet’s egress systems, which allow pilots to eject, are capable. AP

U.S. prepares for return of war dead remains from North Korea

The American military command in South Korea is preparing for the North Koreans to turn over the remains of an unknown number of U.S. or allied service members who have been missing since the Korean War, U.S. officials said June 19.
Officials say the timing of a ceremony is uncertain, but could be very soon. The officials weren’t authorized to discuss the preparations before an official announcement so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The remains are believed to be some or all of the more than 200 that the North Koreans have had for some time. But the precise number and the identities — including whether they are U.S. or allied service members — won’t be known until the remains are tested.
President Donald Trump raised the likelihood of the repatriation of remains last week after his summit meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. At the time Trump said, “We’re getting the remains, and nobody thought that was possible.”
The Defense Department, State Department and White House declined to discuss the latest development. The Pentagon would only say that an interagency effort is underway and that Trump’s agreement with Kim last week cleared the way for the planning for the return of remains.
The transfer of remains is usually done in a somber, formal ceremony, and that is what officials said is being planned. It also wasn’t clear where the ceremony would take place, but it may be at the demilitarized zone on the border between North and South Korea.
It’s been more than a decade since North Korea turned over the remains of American troops missing from the Korean War.
Richard Downes, executive director of the Coalition of Families of Korean & Cold War POW/MIAs, said he has since been told the North may have the remains of more than 200 American service members that were likely recovered from land during farming or construction and could be easily returned. But he said the vast majority have yet to be located and retrieved from various cemeteries and battlefields across the countryside.
More than 36,000 U.S. troops died in the conflict, including those listed as missing in action. Close to 7,700 U.S. troops remain unaccounted for from the Korean War, and about 5,300 of those were lost in North Korea.
Between 1996 and 2005, joint U.S.-North Korea military search teams conducted 33 recovery operations and recovered 229 sets of American remains. Washington officially broke off the program because it claimed the safety of its searchers was not guaranteed, though the North’s first nuclear test, in 2006, was likely a bigger reason.
The last time North Korea turned over remains was in 2007, when Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador and New Mexico governor, secured the return of six sets.
According to Chuck Prichard, spokesman for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, once the remains are turned over, they would be sent to one of two Defense Department facilities — Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii and Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska — for tests to determine identification. AP