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.

When he questioned the findings, Blacke testified, a KBR manager named Garcia whispered something in his ear that "I cannot repeat in mixed company, but he did indicate some very severe references to my genealogy and my mother and asked me to get outside now or he would ask one of the security people from the Army to remove me forcibly. I did advise Mr. Garcia that it would not be beneficial to his personal health if he attempted to do that."

By the time of the first town hall meeting in September 2003, KBR managers already knew they had a problem on their hands. On July 28, an engineering project manager had e-mailed colleagues that "sodium dichromate is unsafe. Short term exposure can affect people and harm their body. Therefore please advise every body working at the Qarmat Ali water plant to stay away from the chemical feed tanks containing sodium dichromate" [sic].

According to an August 12 Project Trip Report, two KBR safety officers took soil samples at Qarmat Ali, noting that "sodium dichromate is a very toxic chemical and has been shown to have caused cancer in humans" and that "casual exposure has been shown to cause lung damage, liver damage, tooth decay, digestive disorders, and cancer."

Oregon National Guardsman Larry Roberta says he went to Iraq fit, and came back barely able to breathe.
Courtesy of Larry Roberta
Oregon National Guardsman Larry Roberta says he went to Iraq fit, and came back barely able to breathe.
Soldiers say that sodium dichromate was spread throughout Qarmat Ali.
Courtesy of Andy Tosh
Soldiers say that sodium dichromate was spread throughout Qarmat Ali.

The safety officers inspected the mixing room, which "was used to collect spills," and a "chemical sewer and open drainage ditch," and noted that "the conveyor platform, the floor around the mixing tanks, and the sump in the mixing room are stained dark orange and contain piles of dark orange crystalline material (most likely pure sodium dichromate)."

Workers for the South Oil Company ate their lunch on the floor in these areas. One worker, whose job it was to shovel sludge from the mixing-room sump, showed the safety officers the ulcers on his stomach and chest.

Minutes from a KBR meeting from the same week indicate that a project manager "reported that the problem seems worse than initially considered" and that "almost 60% of the people now exhibit the symptoms."

They talked remediation: "a decontamination station where people can wash and change clothes"; covering all working surfaces with gravel; and giving paper masks and goggles to "Halliburton hands."

Nothing about masks and goggles for the troops.

Gentry addressed this delay in one of his depositions: "I understand and accept there's danger with my line of service...What's very difficult for me to accept is if I'm working for KBR and they have knowledge of hazardous chemicals on the ground that can cause cancer and not share that knowledge, then that is putting my men at risk that is unnecessary. I'm very upset over that...I feel like they should be ashamed that they did that."

By mid-August, soil sample results confirmed sodium dichromate contamination, and KBR formally notified the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and requested that remediation immediately begin.

In October, the Army's Center for Health Promotion conducted physical exams of the 129 Indiana National Guard troops who were still in Iraq and provided medical history questionnaires to 103 Oregon and South Carolina Guardsmen who were no longer in the country. (The Center also took air and soil samples, which the plaintiffs' lawyers have criticized as being unreliable, since they were taken post-remediation, and also because the air samples weren't taken during high winds, when the sodium dichromate would have been more likely to be inhaled or ingested.)

Resta (the Center's scientific adviser) told the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs in 2009 that "less than 30 percent of the people examined reported symptoms, and the symptoms that were reported were symptoms that could have a variety of causes...All of the people tested had normal blood levels; more than half of the chromium blood tests were actually below the detection limit of the test."

But the plaintiffs' expert, Herman Gibb, an epidemiologist and authority on hexavalent chromium, told the same Senate committee that the months-long delay in medical testing resulted in unreliable data.

For the Senate, Gibb put it like this: "An analogy is like giving a breathalyzer test to a person three days after they were pulled over for erratic driving."

Although the soldiers may have so far captured the public's sympathy, the courts are, of course, not the same, and the plaintiffs' case is hardly a slam dunk.

Much of this is because the Army's Center for Health Promotion & Preventive Medicine's evaluation of some of the Qarmat Ali soldiers turned up "no significant potential for long-term adverse health effects," and a subsequent Defense Health Board review of the Center's work stated that it "met or exceeded the standard of practice for occupational medicine in regard to the exposure assessment and medical evaluation."

Lead KBR attorney Harrison puts it like this: "This is not a 'The defense experts say one thing and the plaintiff experts say another' — this is not that case. This is a case where, in the real time, in 2003, the U.S. Army sent in its own medical team, who was, of course, interested in protecting the soldiers, to find out whether there was any medical issue to be concerned about at all."

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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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