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.

Blood Money

Basra, Iraq: July, 2003

Larry Roberta, a specialist in the Oregon National Guard, sat on a stack of sacks brimming with one of the most carcinogenic chemicals known to man and chomped on his chicken patty.

Unsuccessful in his mission to swap his rations with any of the British soldiers, who were stocked with heavenly corned beef hash and chocolate pudding, he braved the mystery meat's gooey coating while keeping an eye on the contractors' trailer a few yards away. While the Kellogg Brown & Root guys ate inside the trailer, Roberta could've taken lunch in one of the vehicles, but he figured vehicles were prime targets for any insurgents or Saddam loyalists who might be scouring the area. Better to suffer the hundred-plus-degree heat.

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.
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.

To Roberta's knowledge, the chicken patty, with its gooey coating, was the only toxic substance he was currently in contact with. The sand around the sacks was mixed with a dark-orange, crystalline powder, but it didn't faze him — the entire water-injection facility he was guarding was filthy with chemical residue.

The facility, Qarmat Ali, was a sprawling, approximately 50-acre plant where chemically treated water was pumped deep underground to maintain balance in the reservoirs while the oil was extracted. The plant had already felt the pains from years of U.N. sanctions before looters descended like human twisters in early spring and ran away with whatever wasn't bolted down, and much of what was, knocking out electricity and leaving some buildings as mere husks. One building was littered with human feces; exposed machinery was coated with sludge and sand and colored powders.

A gust of wind kicked up the orange-tinted sand around the bags, and some blew into Roberta's left eye and mouth, and onto his slimy chicken patty. It burned. He ran a few yards, then grabbed his canteen and tried to wash down the stubborn sand clinging to the back of his throat, but doing so only made him retch.

After collecting himself, he walked back to where he'd been sitting and partially lifted one of the bags. SODIUM DICH was all he could see, and all he could think of was when he used to swim in the ocean as a kid, how his parents warned him not to swallow any of the saltwater, and to shut his eyes tight if he wanted to dive below the surface. Must be some weird sort of salt, Roberta thought. Not a huge deal.

But as the month progressed, he had trouble breathing; he had trouble sleeping for all the coughing, and it hurt to eat and swallow.

Roberta had been sitting on sacks of sodium dichromate, a compound containing hexavalent chromium, an especially hazardous material that most people might have first become aware of from the film Erin Brockovich. Banned for more than a decade in the United States, sodium dichromate had been used at Qarmat Ali as an anticorrosive, and questions surrounding its presence there are the basis of two federal lawsuits filed against Houston-based KBR on behalf of more than 200 military personnel from four U.S. states and England.

According to the lawsuits, filed in Oregon and Houston, KBR health and safety workers knew about the sodium dichromate in April or May of 2003, but did not notify the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers until mid-August, allowing the troops to be exposed to the potentially deadly chemical for months. During that time, according to the lawsuits, KBR personnel deceived the troops by first concealing the chemical's presence, then downplaying its danger. They told soldiers that their bloody noses and breathing problems were due to sand, or too many protein drinks, or pre-existing conditions.

The soldiers' lawyers say that two National Guardsmen who served at Qarmat Ali have died as a direct result of sodium dichromate exposure. But KBR maintains that the Army's own medical evidence proves that no troops suffered dangerous levels of the chemical.

Lead KBR attorney Geoff Harrison told the Houston Press that the mere presence of sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali does not automatically mean everyone there was overexposed.

"Whether a chemical actually or even likely causes any adverse health effect — no matter how minor — depends on your level, duration and dosage of exposure," he says. "It is meaningless to say, 'There was an exposure,' without analyzing the level, duration and dosage of each individual's exposure. And that work has not been done by the plaintiffs and their hired medical expert at all."

The litigation has produced memos and e-mails showing an alarming lack of communication among and between Army and KBR personnel, especially involving so-called safety officers on both sides who, for a $7 billion contract, appeared to take a remarkably lax approach to potential health hazards and the concerns of their own men.

However, even if KBR is found liable, an indemnity clause in the company's contract means that it won't have to cover legal costs. There's a reason both KBR and the Army wanted a last-minute addition to the contract to remain classified for as long as possible: It indemnifies KBR for any soldier's on-site injury or death — even if due to the company's willful misconduct.
_____________________

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.

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. So...in 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.

By late July 2003, Gentry would later say in a deposition, contractors murmured about how the yellow and orange sand was really contaminated with a cancer-causing agent, and Gentry's men got worried. Gentry went to his immediate commander, and then in August he wrote the general of the 220th MP Brigade. The general, as far as Gentry knew, forwarded the letter up the chain. He hated that his men came to him, and he could tell them nothing.

Russ Powell, a medic with the West Virginia National Guard, had the same frustrations. He could do a quick patch-up, but he wasn't a doctor. Could it just be the flu?

"They kind of look up to you," Powell told the Press, "...and it was just frustrating for me, 'cause one person would get it, then the other person would have it, then all of them have it — including myself. And I'm sitting here [thinking], 'What the hell's wrong with us?'"

Ed Blacke, KBR's health, safety and environment coordinator, had an idea what was wrong, and he was already pissing off his superiors when he told them he had discovered sodium dichromate on site. From his very first visit, he'd been worried about the stained soil and sand. He first got to Qarmat Ali July 10, and when he asked his colleagues who'd already been there about the stuff, he was told it was a non-issue. But the more time he spent at Qarmat Ali, the more complaints he heard from contractors and soldiers alike of bloody noses, spitting up of blood, rashes, sinus and eye irritation. He decided to take his interpreter along on an in-depth assessment, and, he'd later testify, he was told by some of KBR's subcontractors that sodium dichromate had been used at the plant for years.

When Blacke raised this issue with his supervisors, he later testified, he was told to stop agitating the men. He was told to shut the hell up. When he didn't, he was put on a plane back to Houston.

Even prior to Blacke's pernicious muckraking, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineer safety officer, Michael Remington, had also talked sodium dichromate with KBR.

According to Remington's later deposition, a KBR health, safety and environment manager named Chuck Adams invited him to lunch back at the Crowne Plaza and asked that Remington not put too much information down in writing. Adams was happy to talk about any issues, but there just wasn't a need to document every little thing.

Sodium dichromate may have been a sensitive issue to KBR's safety officers because, by mid-July when the men really cranked up the complaints, the safety officers had known about its presence on site for more than a month.

A June 1 KBR "Project Trip Report" noted the use of sodium dichromate; three weeks later, safety officer Jake Duhon would note in a "Daily HSE Log" that he had had a discussion with employees of Iraq's South Oil Company, who confirmed that sodium dichromate was on site.

"Should be able to use this information for PPE [personal protective equipment] requirements..." Duhon wrote.

Three days after this epiphany about protective gear, according to a KBR e-mail, an environmental engineer explained that another engineer "has asked Houston about using chromate in water treatment. As we are not following any EPA regulation in Iraq facility and this water is used only for water injection, we should not change the chemicals used now in the facilities."

The soldiers never got protective equipment, but in late August, they noticed something new: All of a sudden, KBR employees were wearing Tyvek suits with respirators.

It threw the soldiers for a loop. Why, after months of working at Qarmat Ali, did the contractors suddenly need PPE?

Gentry explained in an affidavit five years later that he asked someone to take a photograph of him, in battle rattle, standing on the orange sand between two contractors in their Tyveks. The contractors had been reluctant.

"Nobody is going to know who you are with your respirator on," he assured them.

On September 8, operations at Qarmat Ali were suspended.
_____________________

Memorandum for Record: Department of Veterans Affairs, Indianapolis VA Regional Office, January 8, 2010:

James C. Gentry, VA File Number 315 66 6760.

Service connection for the cause of death is granted.

The cause of death is recorded as: lung cancer. The veteran was service connected for combined obstructive and restrictive ventilatory defect to include right maxillary sinus adenocarcinoma with metastic lung cancer at a 100 percent evaluation.

Service connection for the cause of the veteran's death is granted since evidence shows that it was related to military service.

Indiana Joint Forces Headquarters, National Guard, Memorandum for HQ:

In line of duty for exposure to sodium dichromate between June-September 2003.

By authority of the Secretary of the Army.

To the layman, these findings from the Indiana National Guard and the Department of Veterans Affairs might seem like clear-cut statements that Lt. Col. Gentry's lung cancer was caused by his exposure to sodium dichromate.

Harrison, the KBR attorney, of course disagrees. And going straight to the source wasn't much help: A spokesman for the Indiana National Guard told the Press that its "line of duty" memorandum is not an official statement that the Guard believes Gentry's death was related to the exposure.

Furthermore, both the Indianapolis regional office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, where Gentry was treated for cancer, and the department's national office, which relied on the regional office's medical evaluations, would neither confirm nor deny that sodium dichromate caused Gentry's cancer. A spokesman for the national office explained that, in many cases, once the determination is made that an injury or disability occurred during active duty (or within a year after retirement), it is considered "service-connected." There is not necessarily an investigation into the specific cause.

Because the documents do not officially state that Gentry died as a result of sodium dichromate exposure, KBR's President of Infrastructure was able to exclude Gentry's death from a 2010 op-ed piece he wrote for the Portland Oregonian denying that KBR acted improperly in the handling of Qarmat Ali.

"As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts," Williams wrote. "...Testing by the Army center showed that no troops were harmed and that they were unlikely to develop future injury from any limited exposure they received while in Iraq."

Williams was referring to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion & Preventive Medicine, which concluded in May 2010 "that long-term health effects related to cancer...were very unlikely from the exposure as understood."

It was probably for another reason, then, that Gentry was diagnosed with lung cancer in late 2007, which then spread from his lung to behind his eye and on up to his brain, while at the same time eating away at his bones to the point that, by February 2008, 60 percent of the bones in his hip and femur were like rotted wood. Surgeons implanted a rod, something his widow Luann says was "extremely painful for a man of his stature and size and pride."

By that time, the couple pretty much lived at the VA, driving two hours from their country home near Williams to Indianapolis. They fell in love with the home when they passed it on one of their motorcycle rides — one of the last Gentry would be able to take — in 2007. It was too expensive at the time, but, just their luck, the price soon dropped, and in November 2007 they bought it.

In a deposition Gentry gave on October 5, 2009, he said, "This is our peaceful little place in the world where we're going to spend the rest of our lives in peace."

Fifty days later, he died.

A death like Gentry's may have been what the Department of Defense's Office of Inspector General warned about in a September 2011 report blasting both Army officials and KBR managers for "not effectively" addressing "environmental hazards" prior to working at Qarmat Ali.

Just who exactly was supposed to address what hazards has been a point of conflict between the Army Corps and KBR, with much of the contention hinging on the meaning of the word "benign" as it appears in the multibillion-dollar Restore Iraqi Oil contract. According to KBR, the Army was supposed to conduct a site assessment and clear Qarmat Ali of any hazards, rendering it "benign," before operations began. Therefore, any sodium dichromate still on the ground was the Army's fault. But did "benign" mean the Army was supposed to clear any military-related, as opposed to environmental, hazards? Because the architects of the contract did not see fit to include a glossary, we may never know.

The DoD Inspector General's report called the Qarmat Ali contract "impractical" and stated that the Army changed the scope of the contract midstream, and "as a result, Service members and DoD civilians were unintentionally exposed to toxic chemicals and the U.S. Government was made vulnerable to potential health care liabilities for individuals exposed to contamination."

The report also concluded that KBR did not "fully comply" with — and the Corps of Engineers did not enforce — U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. As a result, "nearly 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Army civilian employees were exposed to sodium dichromate in the five months it took from the initial site visit until the military Command required personal protective equipment."

Hardly, according to John Resta, scientific adviser to the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion. He told a Senate committee on Veterans Affairs in 2009 that soldiers at Qarmat Ali participated in a series of town hall-style meetings on the subject and "were provided fact sheets about the potential exposures." (The latter repository of knowledge smacked of junior-high health class, with one fact sheet titled — Scout's honor — "Chromium and You.")

Prior to the town hall meetings, according to later testimony, KBR managers had their own meeting to discuss concerns about sodium dichromate. Ed Blacke told a Senate committee in 2008 that he was escorted from the meeting after a disagreement with another KBR health and safety officer.

According to Blacke, the managers "told the workers at that time that sodium dichromate was at worst a mild irritant, that the plant had been thoroughly checked out and was safe, and they were to get back to work...I was kind of shocked that fellow safety and medical officers were telling outrageous and blatant lies to the workers."

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."

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."

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."

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.

"But I don't expect to be incapacitated by a contractor that's out there making millions of dollars," he says.

Gentry's widow, Luann, of course feels the same way.

"These were citizen soldiers, they were National Guardsmen," she says. "They were hung out to dry serving their country."

craig.malisow@houstonpress.com

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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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