Senators Strike Deal on Massive Burn Pits and Toxic Exposure Bill

May 19, 2022Hannah Ray Lambert
burn pits Supreme Court

Marines with 1st Marine Logistics Group burn black water before filling the pit with sand at Taqaddum, Iraq, Sept. 22, 2008. US Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Jason W. Fudge.

Veterans exposed to burn pits and other toxic chemicals while deployed overseas could soon see sweeping changes to their health care and disability benefits after federal lawmakers spent more than a year haggling over the specifics of legislation.

Senate lawmakers announced Wednesday, May 18, that they’d reached a bipartisan agreement on what they deemed “the most comprehensive toxic exposure package” in US history.

“For far too long, our nation’s veterans have been living with chronic illnesses as a result of exposures during their time in uniform,” reads a press release from Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee Chairman Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, and ranking member Jerry Moran, a Kansas Republican. “Today, we’re taking necessary steps to right this wrong with our proposal that’ll provide veterans and their families with the health care and benefits they have earned and deserve.”

The senators did not release the full text of the new bill, but they included a summary that indicates it may be a compromise with the massive House version of the toxic exposure legislation.

The new Senate bill is named the Sergeant First Class Heath Robinson Honoring Our Pact Act of 2022 in honor of an Ohio National Guard veteran who died of lung cancer after being exposed to burn pits. It would add 23 burn pit and toxic exposure-related conditions, including hypertension, to the VA’s list of presumptive illnesses. It would also expand VA health care eligibility to Post-9/11 combat veterans, fund more federal research, and create a framework for establishing future presumptions of service connection related to toxic exposure, according to the summary.

According to a 2015 Department of Veterans Affairs report, as many as 3.5 million veterans may have been exposed to burn pits in Afghanistan, Djibouti, and the Southwest Asia theater of operations. Many medical experts believe smoke and other emissions from the burning of waste can have long-term health effects. However, the onus has long been on veterans to prove their illnesses were service-connected. Between 2007 and 2020, the VA denied about 78% of disability claims related to burn-pit exposure.

Each chamber of Congress fielded numerous toxic exposure bills in 2021, finally announcing two comprehensive bills in May 2021. The House passed its Honoring Our Promise To Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act in March, but it faced opposition in the Senate over its estimated price tag — around $208 billion in direct spending over the next decade — and concerns that it might stretch the VA beyond its operational capacity.

A cost estimate for the new bill was not immediately available.

A US Army armored personnel carrier sprays Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. In addition to expanding the conditions presumed to be connected to burn pits and other toxic exposures overseas, the Senate bill acknowledges more locations where Vietnam-era veterans were likely exposed to Agent Orange. US Army photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The new legislation would also expand benefits for Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange, adding Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Guam, American Samoa, and Johnston Atoll to the list of countries where the government acknowledges soldiers were exposed to the powerful herbicide.

The text of the bill still needs to be finalized, but Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promised to put it to a vote after Memorial Day. If it passes, it will go to the House of Representatives.

Many veterans and groups who have pushed for Congress to take action on burn pit and toxic exposure benefits applauded the announcement Wednesday. Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America CEO my Butler said he was “greatly encouraged and optimistic” to hear that an agreement had been reached.

“IAVA and our partner [veterans service organizations] have been working on this for years,” Jeremy Butler wrote in a statement. “We will need many others to follow their lead and we will keep pushing until it finally passes Congress.”

Read Next: Remembering Kate Thomas: Marine Corps Vet, Champion of Burn Pit Legislation Dies From Breast Cancer

Hannah Ray Lambert
Hannah Ray Lambert

Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.

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