US/IRAQ: Indiana guardsmen sue defense contractor KBR

Say firm knew of exposure to carcinogen
Publisher Name: 
Boston Globe

Sixteen Indiana national guardsmen filed a lawsuit yesterday
accusing KBR, the Houston-based US defense contractor, of knowingly
exposing them to "one of the most potent carcinogens" known to man
while they guarded a water treatment plant in Iraq that the company was
repairing.

The complaint alleges that several reservists contracted respiratory
system tumors and skin rashes after guarding reconstruction work at the
Qarmat Ali treatment plant, which had been looted and was strewn with
chromium dichromate, an anticorrosion substance used on pipes that
greatly increases the chances of developing cancer and other health
problems.

KBR managers "disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger of
wholesale site contamination," alleges the lawsuit, filed in federal
court in Indiana. The lawsuit accuses the company of gross negligence,
alleging that reservists "were repeatedly told that there was no danger
on the site" even after tests on civilian KBR workers showed elevated
levels of chromium.

KBR was under a deadline to finish repairs on the plant, which
pumped water to Iraq's oil fields. It knew in April 2003 that the
chemical was harmful but did not clean the site until September,
according to internal company memos filed in the case.

The Globe reported in March that civilian contractors working for
KBR were allegedly made ill by chromium at the facility. Those
contractors testified at a congressional hearing in June that US
soldiers also experienced symptoms of chromium exposure.

Yesterday, Mark McManaway, a 54-year-old truck driver from
Cannelton, Ind., who guarded the plant in 2003, said he contacted a
lawyer after he learned of KBR workers who were ill.

"My eyes burned," he said yesterday, recalling his symptoms. "They still burn. I have blisters break out on my hands."

Spokeswoman Heather Browne said KBR took appropriate measures to
clean up the chemical and denied that it had been negligent. "We deny
the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe
condition," Browne said in a statement.

In order for the lawsuit to succeed, lawyers for the soldiers must
prove that KBR made its own decisions about the contract and should not
share the legal immunity enjoyed by the US military, according to
Steven Schooner, law professor at George Washington University.

News that civilian contractors at Qarmat Ali had been ill prompted
the Indiana National Guard to try to track down and notify about 137
soldiers who were at the site and 457 other reservists who may have had
contact with the facility.

Major General R. Martin Umbarger, head of the Indiana National
Guard, said in a recent interview that he only found out about the
exposure in June, when KBR testified before Congress.

"Why didn't anybody tell us that this was going on?" he said.

The Pentagon tested about 100 soldiers after it discovered the
chemical at the site in 2003, but no obvious health effects were found,
according to Dr. Craig Hyams, chief consultant for environmental health
at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Symptoms of chromium exposure - such as a bloody nose and
respiratory complaints - were common throughout Iraq, he said. But he
acknowledged that it may still be too early to understand the impact.
"Veterans Affairs is still analyzing the effects of Agent Orange,"
Hyams said, referring to the defoliant used in the Vietnam war.

Since their return, 47 Indiana guardsmen have been examined and so
far no specific pattern of illness has been found, according to Dr. Ken
Klotz, chief of staff at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in
Indianapolis.

But two cases of serious illness have sparked fear.

Earlier this year, the battalion commander in charge of soldiers at
Qarmat Ali, Lt Col. James Gentry, was diagnosed with lung cancer. "I am
a nonsmoker and I have small-cell cancer in my lungs. It is pretty
rare," Gentry, who spent about 140 hours inside the Qarmat Ali plant,
told the Globe in a recent interview. "I brought up to my doctor the
situation [at Qarmat Ali] and he agreed that this could be a cause, but
he also said there could be multiple other reasons."

Another soldier from the battalion, Sergeant David Moore, died in
February of interstitial lung disease, according to his daughter's
mother, Audrey Weisheit. Moore was a smoker. But Weisheit said veterans
affairs officials reviewed his medical file and sent her a letter last
week declaring his death "service-related."

Weisheit said she is "grateful" for the ruling, which allows her daughter to receive benefits.

"But," she said yesterday, "It doesn't answer a lot of questions" about his death.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
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