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.

Harrison also points out that, while the troops may have been in the same area as sodium dichromate, that doesn't automatically mean they were overexposed — and the medical evidence proves it.

However, the Center only tested a portion of the roughly 600 soldiers who rotated through Qarmat Ali; physical evaluations were done on the 129 Indiana National Guardsmen on site at the time of the testing. The Oregon, West Virginia and South Carolina Guardsmen no longer serving at the site were given questionnaires.

The Department of Defense's Office of Inspector General called this paucity of testing "a lost opportunity for obtaining more complete knowledge of the possible medical impact of pre-encapsulation exposure."

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.

Moreover, many other Guardsmen were not even aware that they had been exposed to sodium dichromate until 2008, when Congressional hearings began.

And because the U.S. Army and KBR are vehemently backing the Center's findings, it appears they are casually dismissing the soldiers' complaints as misinformed whining at best, and opportunistic malingering at worst.

Both entities would have to brush aside the Congressional testimony of soldiers like Infantry Company Commander Russell Kimberling, who alleged that "We were told by KBR that the sodium dichromate was a mild irritant, and that one would have to literally bathe in it for any toxicity to occur."

Likewise, both the Army and KBR would have to brush aside the weird dichotomy between the "fact sheets" the Center was distributing to the Qarmat Ali soldiers and KBR's simultaneous meetings.

The Center's first fact sheet, dated September 19, 2003, stated the Army was "developing a robust risk communication program to keep everyone informed" about sodium dichromate exposure.

Two weeks later, KBR, Army Corps, and South Oil Company personnel held a meeting in which KBR safety officer Chuck Adams noted that "the company will be liable" if personnel are exposed, and suggested that blood testing should be done for "people shoveling the dust into bags" because "if exposed too long may cause death." (This meeting was more than a month after the KBR meeting where a safety officer noted that nearly 60 percent of the people exhibited symptoms).

Also at this meeting, a gentleman from the South Oil Company noted that his people needed "updated literature," as they were "using a book that is 25 years old."

There is also the question of what constitutes an "official" notice to the Army Corps of Engineers by KBR that sodium dichromate was on site. Although KBR notified the Corps in writing on August 12, 2003, of potential sodium dichromate exposure, a Corps safety officer wrote of sodium dichromate's presence in a June 25 log.

Houston-based plaintiffs' lawyer Mike Doyle finds the one-of-our-dudes-told-one-of-their-dudes defense ridiculous: "So whatever KBR says or did, as long as they pointed out one portion to one guy in one division of the Army, they can lie to everybody on an ongoing basis," is how he describes it.

Doyle refers to the willful misconduct clause in KBR's contract, which the Army had refused to turn over to a Congressional panel for years, as a vital clue that the company foresaw potentially fatal hazards but was more concerned with its bottom line than with the lives of even its own employees. (KBR's attorney, Harrison, says the fact that KBR asked for full indemnification was never classified and was revealed to Doyle as early as 2006.)

After the indemnification clause finally came to light, Oregon legislators authored a bill intending to stamp out what they considered questionable business practices. The National Defense Authorization Act requires the Secretary of Defense to notify Congressional defense committees of all future indemnifications in government contracts.

Co-author Senator Ron Wyden issued a statement promising that "From now on, contractors doing business with the Department of Defense are not going to get a free pass to be reckless and irresponsible with the lives and health of American soldiers."

Of course, Larry Roberta believes the Act came too late for those who worked at Qarmat Ali.

By December 2003, Roberta was experiencing extreme acid reflux disorder. In January 2004, he says, Army physicians recommended a Nissen fundoplication wrap: Surgeons made five incisions in his abdomen, entered laparoscopically and wrapped the top part of his stomach to form a one-way valve between his esophagus and the rest of the stomach.

Roberta says he had to grind up his food for a month, but that was a minor inconvenience when compared to the pain he says often hits out of the blue. The Nissen wrap leaves a person unable to vomit when he feels he has to. Roberta describes it as like someone punching your stomach from the inside.

"If I breathe too heavy, my lungs hurt," he told the Press. Unable to work since September 2004, a big day for Roberta is walking to the mailbox. He has a cane for these treks, but these days, he relies more on his 75-pound English bulldog, Gino. When he feels dizzy or faint, Roberta says, he can lean on Gino. Roberta named his brown and white companion after his first National Guard platoon sergeant.

Like Gentry, Roberta says he expected certain things with his service: You can get injured or killed by the enemy or through friendly fire. That's part of the deal.

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10 comments
Chuckmyers
Chuckmyers

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. chuckmyers@gmail.com Semper Fi

Greysonk
Greysonk

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

Fejsplace
Fejsplace

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

KBR OFFICIAL RESPONSE

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

Estelle711
Estelle711

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Geezy
Geezy

"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.

Guest
Guest

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.

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?

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!

 
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