President Donald Trump signed three of local Congressman Raul Ruiz's bills into law, including legislation to stop burn pits and improve mental health services for local law enforcement.
On Friday, Trump signed the bipartisan, $738 billion National Defense Authorization Act into law. The NDAA included two pieces of Ruiz's legislation aiming to end the use of toxic military burn pits.
Burn pits were used as the main way to get rid of waste and garbage on American military bases during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, hundreds of tons of waste were burned each day including plastics, Styrofoam, petroleum products, human waste, and other items.
Many service members and veterans exposed to burn pits ended up suffering from pulmonary issues, insomnia, cancer, and rare illnesses.
An independent registry by Burn Pits 360, a veteran organization whose goal it is to end burn pits, reveals that over 6,000 veterans have been exposed to toxic airborne chemicals and fumes generated by open air burn pits.
Ruiz's legislation calls on the Department of Defense to produce and implement a plan to phase out the use of burn pits and provide a comprehensive list of all locations where the toxic burn pits have been used.
One local veteran affected by burn pits was at the forefront of highlighting the dangers of the practice years ago.
Cathedral City resident Jennifer Kepner served as an Air Force Medic in Iraq in 2006. She told News Channel 3's John White in Sept. 2017, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2016.
Kepner had no previous family history of the disease and lived a healthy lifestyle.
Kepner said her first oncologist believed her cancer was caused by an open air burn pit that Kepner was exposed to during her tour of duty at Joint Base Balad in Iraq.
Kepner lost her battle to cancer on October 16, 2017. She was 39 years old and left behind a husband and two young children. After her passing, her husband continued her fight to end burn pits.
“This is a monumental step forward in our fight to end the use of burn pits once and for all,” said Dr. Raul Ruiz (CA-36). “Having the list of toxic burn pit locations will help VA providers and veterans identify who is at risk for cancers, autoimmune and pulmonary diseases in order to provide treatment quickly and ultimately save lives. I am glad to share this victory with Jennifer Kepner’s family and the servicemembers and veterans affected by toxic burn pit exposure.”
Trump also signed Ruiz's amendment to H.R. 1865, the Further Consolidated Appropriations. The bill grants funding from $2 million to $5 million to improve mental health care, peer mentoring and support, and other mental health programs for law enforcement agencies.
“This week we celebrate more than doubling the funds for law enforcement mental health programs to address the higher rates of PTSD, suicide, and depression among peace officers as a result of their extremely stressful experience keeping our communities safe,” said Dr. Ruiz. “This truly was a locally inspired team effort with our local law enforcement leaders.”