Blood Money

More than 200 soldiers are suing KBR for knowingly exposing them to toxic chemicals in Iraq, whose effects started with nose bleeds and could end with cancer. KBR says that didn't happen. But even if it did, the company isn't responsible. Taxpayers are.

Picture a grain of table salt floating in 1,000 liters of air. Now split that single grain into eighths, and get rid of seven. That remaining eighth is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration's acceptable level for hexavalent chromium exposure for an eight-hour period.

In August 2001, the United Nations, which had enforced sanctions on Iraq and oversaw the attendant Food-for-Oil program, implemented its Phase X. As a part of that phase, Iraq's South Oil Company, which ran Qarmat Ali, put in an order for 4,020 tons of "water treatment chemicals," which included sodium dichromate.

Located in southern Iraq, approximately 70 miles southeast of the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates — the supposed Garden of Eden — Qarmat Ali was the region's biggest water-injection facility, pumping treated water into the Rumailah reservoir. Built by the Soviets, Qarmat Ali went online in 1982, was crippled during the UN sanctions of the 1990s and was already considered antiquated by the time the U.S. declared war in 2003.

Lt. Col. James Gentry died of lung cancer that his wife Luann says was caused by ­hexavalent chromium.
Courtesy of Luann Gentry
Lt. Col. James Gentry died of lung cancer that his wife Luann says was caused by ­hexavalent chromium.

Looting all but leveled the place, and the U.S. wanted to get Qarmat Ali operational as quickly as possible, so it could assist in beating the production goal of three million barrels a day the United States had set for the entire country.

This awesome responsibility fell to TF RIO, Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil, a coalition of military and civilian personnel. Step one was for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to award a $7 billion sole-source contract to KBR, with about $2.5 billion designated for Qarmat Ali. (At the time, KBR was owned by Halliburton; it separated in 2007 and, according to its Web site, employs 35,000 globally. Because the soldiers' Texas lawsuit mostly concerns Indiana National Guard troops, it was originally filed in Indiana, but dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. The soldiers' lawyers then argued successfully to have it filed in Houston — KBR's headquarters, and, according to the lawsuit, the actual nerve center of the Restore Iraqi Oil project).

The contract was generous beyond the base price: It included a performance bonus if KBR got Qarmat Ali operational before the deadline. But even after the contract was signed, KBR wasn't satisfied: Its contract specialist called the Corps of Engineers back to the table and said the company would not proceed unless the standard-issue indemnity language was modified to protect KBR from having to cover the costs of any litigation arising from injuries or deaths due to the company's willful misconduct. If anything happened, the government would have to cover the cost.

Despite the fact that the U.S. government had so much confidence in KBR's global expertise that it didn't even put the contract out for bid, and despite the fact that Iraq's Ministry of Oil depended on sodium dichromate so much that it ordered it by the ton, it is KBR's de facto position that its people had no reason to even consider the fact that the chemical might be present at Qarmat Ali.

This oversight is understandable once one examines one of the highly technical skills required to nab a multibillion-dollar sole-source government contract to restore an entire nation's oil industry: assumption.

To wit: Here's one of KBR's health, safety and environment managers, Johnny Morney, in a deposition, explaining the thought process upon entering the largest water-injection facility in southern Iraq: "The facility at Qarmat Ali is a water-treatment facility. the States, you know, there's no real use of any hazardous chemicals used there. So we went in assuming that this was just a water-treatment plant."

Though KBR contractors were, of course, not military, they were in a war zone, and the area around Qarmat Ali was not immune to enemy fire, IEDs and unexploded mines. They needed military protection, which came in the form of National Guard units from Oregon, Indiana, South Carolina and West Virginia, as well as British troops. At night, the contractors slept in a Kuwait Crowne Plaza hotel, where a KBR manager had to issue a memo scolding them for bringing "ladies of the evening" back to their rooms.

Meanwhile, Indiana National Guard Lt. Col. Jim Gentry and his men stayed at Camp Wolf at the Kuwait City airport at night. Every evening, they stomped the orange- and yellow-stained sand off their boots and shook it from the crevices in their uniforms. Gentry figured the stuff covered half of Qarmat Ali, but no one wore personal protective equipment and no one said it was anything significant, so he didn't really think about it. When he and his men started getting nosebleeds, chest pains and rashes, KBR supervisors said it was the dry desert air, or maybe his men were just allergic to sand.

Gentry, 46 at the time, had signed up with the National Guard in 1981. He had wanted to serve his country — and the extra $89 a month helped support a growing family. He was proud of his service in the Guard, especially the help he was able to provide the Iraqi people. Sure, he and his men found caches of weapons and IEDs, but they also dug wells for schools and delivered nearly two tons of school supplies donated by the good people of Indiana, and that's what he was most proud of. He had a soft spot for kids — he had five of his own, and he taught at a junior high, where he also coached basketball and football. He'd once owned a restaurant, and he worked many years as a mechanic, but it was the work with kids he most loved.

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Marine Corp Veteren here, Korean War. Dealing with the same sort of thing. They've been doing this for a long time. But don't give up the fight. Contact me if I can be of any help. Semper Fi


OGM I use that stuff regularly to treat sour gas wells back in the early 80s


As horrible and tragic as this is, it's nothing that hasn't happened in the past or won't happen in future wars. Agent orange in Nam comes to mind. No telling what it was in Korea and WWII, but back then people had different mind sets than what they have now.

KBR Public Relations
KBR Public Relations


We respectfully disagree with the notion that KBR is responsible for exposing soldiers to toxic levels of Sodium Dichromate at a water treatment plant, Qarmat Ali, in Iraq. KBR operates a legal business and complies with state and federal laws. Those who call on KBR to pay soldiers for their failing health, which could be related to anything, ignore the voluminous other hazards that exist in Iraq. Even a cursory look at the Iraq Wikipedia page would show such hazards. A search for recent studies would show that military personnel deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan are 8 times more likely to suffer respiratory problems and amply demonstrates that KBR took preventative measures to protect its workers and the soldiers.

Suing KBR, or its affiliates, would have zero impact on the toxicity that exists in Iraq or Afghanistan. The toxicity could come from anywhere, and KBR has made every attempt to work with the military in an attempt to keep soldiers and KBR employees safe.

KBR signed a contract with the US military that stated that prior to KBR arriving at Qarmat Ali the military would ensure that the plant was safe to operate on. KBR has strict safety guide lines that are well monitored and enforced. As does the U.S. military and it would be inconceivable to think that they did not do what was required of them to clear the work site prior to KBR’s arrival. And while KBR might have made millions off of this contract they took every precaution necessary to create a safe work environment for everyone. KBR posted signs in English and Arabic that stated that sodium dichromate was toxic and informed the government as soon as toxic levels of the chemical were reported.

The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and preventative Medicine issued a Survey and Risk Assessment Field Report that found that KBR’s efforts to work with the government not only helped minimize exposure to the chemical but also saved lives. KBR has always maintained strong cooperative relationships with federal agencies.

Because of KBR's reports to the federal government efforts to create safer work environments resulted in lives saved. Virtually all preventative measures and precautions were based, at least in part, on records and test that KBR provided to the U.S. military.

KBR has been outspoken in its support for efforts to stop the spread of sodium dichromate in Iraq. The Iraqi government was the real perpetrators of this crime. It was under the regime of Saddam Hussein that sodium dichromate was dumped by the tons in Iraq. Thanks to KBR and their commitment to safety we were able to identify a problem and aid the government in exposing what could have been a dangerous situation for all the young soldiers in Iraq.

We continue to invest millions of dollars in human, technological, and other resources to detect and report toxicity and to help the U.S. Government pinpoint and clean up contaminated sites. KBR can only do so much, for they are just one small company in a sea of companies that is faced with toxic chemicals that are raping young soldiers.

But no amount of vigilance on our part - or cooperation with the military - is perfect. This is something every responsible parent whose child confronts the temptations of the street and drugs understands. With tens of thousands of work sites under review in multiple nations, there is going to be a small percentage that is impossible to detect and eliminate. But improving technologies for monitoring and moderating toxic chemicals, not shutting down all work sites, is the effective solution.

Much more effective and viable solutions were called for last year in a groundbreaking report by someone we paid. Titled "Toxic Trafficking Onsite: The Role of Corporations and Toxic Chemicals," the study concluded that the lack of new technology, such as Hazmat suites and facemasks, were not the root cause of dead soldiers. The report recommended leveraging these technologies to interdict the activities of deadly chemicals. That's exactly what KBR does.

We urge you to contact the United States Military for more information.

The bottom line for us is that we address the problem of toxicity with strategies that work to interdict dangerous working conditions, not useless lawsuits that, while they might make good news copy and political rhetoric, don't rescue anyone.False allegations will not create public safety nor rid the world of toxicity.

Heather Brown Director, Media Relations KBR, Inc


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"Cause when it comes to peoples safety, money wins out every time"- Gil Scott-Heron.

An unbelivable article Craig, very well written and researched. Disgusted to say the least.


What??? Sorry not saying that this guy is lying...but having been to Iraq myself and seeing first hand how KBR operates the only thing I think they are guilty of is questionable food and charging the govt like the cold cuts were covered with gold. And sorry but thats business, Id charge anybody 25.00 for a turkey sandwich that they had to assemble and season themselves if I could. And yes maybe my fellow soldiers did die for oil, but all wars are for land, resources or money....otherwise the government wouldn't give a damn like all the rest of the governments thru the sand of time, welcome to reality.

Ms Sparky
Ms Sparky

This is hands down the best article written so far about Qarmat Ali and the criminal acts committed by KBR management. KUDO's! The DoD has a responsibility to protect our soldiers. You allowed our soldiers to be injured and killed for corporate greed and OIL! I want to see some personal indictments on this. Where in the hell is the DOJ. Well done Craig Malisow and the Houston Press!

Craig Malisow
Craig Malisow

Hi Guest -- I've read your comment a few dozen times now, and I'm still not sure what your point is, other than you think that maybe KBR, or many contractors, overcharged the government and that soldiers die in war. And as for "reality" -- if the reality of a particular situation is that it is unjust, does that mean it shouldn't be acknowledged and corrected? Or do you just subscribe to apathy?

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