IRAQ: Electrical Risks at Bases in Iraq Worse Than Previously Said

Publisher Name: 
The New York Times

WASHINGTON - Shoddy electrical work by private contractors on United States military bases in Iraq
is widespread and dangerous, causing more deaths and injuries from
fires and shocks than the Pentagon has acknowledged, according to
internal Army documents.

During just one six-month
period - August 2006 through January 2007 - at least 283 electrical
fires destroyed or damaged American military facilities in Iraq,
including the military's largest dining hall in the country, documents
obtained by The New York Times show. Two soldiers died in an electrical
fire at their base near Tikrit in 2006, the records note, while another
was injured while jumping from a burning guard tower in May 2007.

And while the Pentagon has previously reported that 13 Americans have
been electrocuted in Iraq, many more have been injured, some seriously,
by shocks, according to the documents. A log compiled earlier this year
at one building complex in Baghdad disclosed that soldiers complained
of receiving electrical shocks in their living quarters on an almost
daily basis.

Electrical problems were the most urgent noncombat
safety hazard for soldiers in Iraq, according to an Army survey issued
in February 2007. It noted "a safety threat theaterwide created by the
poor-quality electrical fixtures procured and installed, sometimes
incorrectly, thus resulting in a significant number of fires."

The
Army report said KBR, the Houston-based company that is responsible for
providing basic services for American troops in Iraq, including
housing, did its own study and found a "systemic problem" with
electrical work.

But the Pentagon did little to address the
issue until a Green Beret, Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, was electrocuted
in January while showering. His death, caused by poor electrical
grounding, drew the attention of lawmakers and Pentagon leaders after
his family pushed for answers. Congress and the Pentagon's inspector
general have begun investigations, and this month senior Army officials
ordered electrical inspections of all buildings in Iraq maintained by
KBR.

"We consider this to be a very serious issue," Chris
Isleib, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday in an e-mail message, while
declining to comment on the findings in the Army documents.

Heather
Browne, a KBR spokeswoman, would not comment about a company safety
study or the reports of electrical fires or shocks, but she said KBR
had found no evidence of a link between its work and the
electrocutions. She added, "KBR's commitment to the safety of all
employees and those the company serves remains unwavering."

In
public statements, Pentagon officials have not addressed the scope of
the hazards, instead mostly focusing on the circumstances surrounding
the death of Sergeant Maseth, who lived near Pittsburgh.

But
the internal documents, including dozens of memos, e-mail messages and
reports from the Army, the Defense Contract Management Agency and other
agencies, show that electrical problems were widely recognized as a
major safety threat among Pentagon contracting experts. It is
impossible to determine the exact number of the resulting deaths and
injuries because no single document tallies them up. (The records were
compiled for Congressional and Pentagon investigators and obtained
independently by The Times.)

The 2007 safety survey was ordered
by the top official in Iraq for the Defense Contract Management Agency,
which oversees contractors, after the October 2006 electrical fire that
killed two soldiers near Tikrit. Paul Dickinson, a Pentagon safety
specialist who wrote the report, confirmed its findings, but did not
elaborate.

Senior Pentagon officials appear not to have responded
to the survey until this May, after Congressional investigators had
begun to ask questions. Then they argued that its findings were
irrelevant to Sergeant Maseth's electrocution.

In a memo dated
May 26, 2008, a top official of the Defense Contract Management Agency
stated that "there is no direct or causal connection" between the
problems identified in the survey and those at the Baghdad compound
where Sergeant Maseth died.

But in a sworn statement,
apparently prepared for an investigation of Sergeant Maseth's death by
the Army's Criminal Investigative Division, a Pentagon contracting
official described how both military and KBR officials were aware of
the growing danger from poor electrical work.

In the statement,
Ingrid Harrison, an official with the Pentagon's contracting management
agency, disclosed that an electrical fire caused by poor wiring in a
nearby building two weeks before Sergeant Maseth's death had endangered
two other soldiers.

"The soldiers were lucky because the one
window that they could reach did not have bars on it, or there could
have been two other fatalities," Ms. Harrison said in the statement.
She said that after Sergeant Maseth died, a more senior Pentagon
contracting official in Baghdad denied knowing about the fire, but she
asserted that "it was thoroughly discussed" during internal meetings.

Ms.
Harrison added that KBR officials also knew of widespread electrical
problems at the Radwaniya Palace Complex, near Baghdad's airport, where
Sergeant Maseth died. "KBR has been at R.P.C. for over four years and
was fully aware of the safety hazards, violations and concerns
regarding the soldiers' housing," she said in the statement. She added
that the contractor "chose to ignore the known unsafe conditions."

Ms. Harrison did not respond to a request for comment.

In
another internal document written after Sergeant Maseth's death, a
senior Army officer in Baghdad warned that soldiers had to be moved
immediately from several buildings because of electrical risks. In a
memo asking for emergency repairs at three buildings, the official
warned of a "clear and present danger," adding, "Exposed wiring,
ungrounded distribution panels and inappropriate lighting fixtures
render these facilities uninhabitable and unsafe."

The memo added that "over the course of several months, electrical fires and shorts have compounded these unsafe conditions."

Since
the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of American
troops have been housed in Iraqi buildings that date from the Saddam Hussein
era. KBR and other contractors have been paid millions of dollars to
repair and upgrade the buildings, including their electrical systems.
KBR officials say they handle the maintenance for 4,000 structures and
an additional 35,000 containers used as housing in the war zone.

The
reports of shoddy electrical work have raised new questions about the
Bush administration's heavy reliance on contractors in Iraq,
particularly because they come after other high-profile disputes
involving KBR. They include accusations of overbilling, providing
unsafe water to soldiers and failing to protect female employees who
were sexually assaulted.

Officials say the administration
contracted out so much work in Iraq that companies like KBR were simply
overwhelmed by the scale of the operations. Some of the electrical
work, for example, was turned over to subcontractors, some of which
hired unskilled Iraqis who were paid only a few dollars a day.

Government
officials responsible for contract oversight, meanwhile, were also
unable to keep up, so that unsafe electrical work was not challenged by
government auditors.

Several electricians who worked for KBR
have said previously in interviews that they repeatedly warned KBR
managers and Pentagon and military officials about unsafe electrical
work. They said that supervisors had ignored their concerns or, in some
cases, lacked the training to understand the problems.

The Army
documents cite a number of recent safety threats. One report showed
that during a four-day period in late February, soldiers at a Baghdad
compound reported being shocked while taking showers in different
buildings. The circumstances appear similar to those that led to
Sergeant Maseth's death.

Another entry from early March stated
that an entire house used by American troops was electrically charged,
making it unlivable.

Since the Pentagon reports were compiled,
more episodes linked to electrical problems have occurred. In late
June, for example, an electrical fire at a Marine base in Falluja
destroyed 10 buildings, forcing marines there to ask for donations from
home to replace their personal belongings.

On July 5, Sgt. First
Class Anthony Lynn Woodham of the Arkansas National Guard died at his
base in Tallil, Iraq. Initial reports blamed electrocution, but his
death is being investigated because of conflicting information,
according to his wife, Crystal Woodham, and a spokesman for the
Arkansas National Guard.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 21 Reconstruction
  • 176 War Profiteers Site