Cover Story: Soldiers Say KBR Exposed Them to Dangerous Chemical

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Did KBR allow soldiers to be exposed to a carcinogenic chemical in 2003?
In 2003, just weeks after the U.S. declared war on Iraq, workers for Houston-based KBR were busy trying to restore the invaded nation's oil industry.

Under a contract with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, part of KBR's job was to restore a dilapidated water-injection facility in the south. American and British troops provided security. It didn't take long before KBR employees and soldiers complained of bloody noses, trouble breathing, and rashes. And it also didn't take long to figure out that parts of the facility were contaminated with sodium dichromate, a chemical that contains hexavalent chromium, a carcinogenic that most people might know from the movie Erin Brockovich.

You might think that health and safety officers from both KBR and the Corps would act quickly to remove the stuff, test the workers and soldiers, and provide protective gear. Instead, it appears that both sides tried to shift the burden onto each other while figuring out how to best adopt a CYA strategy.

In 2010, the soldiers sued KBR, accusing them of lying to the soldiers about the presence and danger of sodium dichromate. However, the Army's own medical evaluations -- limited to just a fraction of those possibly exposed -- did not find abnormal chromium levels in the soldiers' blood.

But the lawsuit has produced internal e-mails and minutes of meetings that suggest more could have been to protect everyone at the water-injection plant. The lawsuit has also produced a clause in the contract that shows why KBR may not have cared to do that, though: the company had obtained a rare indemnification clause protecting the company from financial liability for any deaths or injuries due to "willful misconduct."

While KBR's lead lawyer believes raising the issue of the clause is a desperate measure by the plaintiffs' lawyers, the soldiers believe it shows that KBR was willing to put profit ahead of safety, and suggests a motive for why KBR didn't act quickly to abate the sodium dichromate.

This week's cover story, "Blood Money," looks into what should have been a no-brainer -- cleaning up the facility in early 2003 -- but what instead has dragged on for nearly a decade, and what some of the troops believe has already cut some of their fellow soldiers' lives short.

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