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Major Military Contractor Poisons American Troops, Avoids Accountability

KBR knew a hazardous chemical was present at an Iraqi water treatment plant, but let soldiers and employees work there for months.
 
 
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In the spring and summer of 2003, when U.S. troops were guarding cleanup of a neglected water treatment plant in the Basrah oil fields in Qatmat Ali, southern Iraq, they noticed orange dust scattered on the floor and sitting in open sacks. Within weeks, several were suffering nosebleeds, eye irritations, sore throats, and anxiety about the dust's relation to their new maladies.

No danger, supervisors of KBR, the mega military services contractor in charge of the cleanup, assured them; they were just not used to the desert sand. In September 2003, KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown, Root and a subsidiary of Halliburton) closed the facility. But the physical problems and anxieties about future illness prevailed.

The orange powder, the troops learned, was sodium dichromate, an anticorrosion compound containing hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen. It's the same toxin that Erin Brochovich found leached into the groundwater near Southern Caliofrnia pipelines, resulting in cancerous tumors. Almost 10 years later, in November 2012, a federal jury in Portland has ruled in favor of the troops, finding KBR exposed troops to poison, acting “with reckless and outrageous indifference to a highly unreasonable risk of harm and conscious indifference to the health, safety and welfare of others.” The jury awarded the dozen plaintiffs $85 million.

In the two months since the verdict, KBR has come out hooting and hollering. In an interview published this week in the Oregonian, KBR's vice-president for litigation, Mark Lowes, said the Houston-based KBR does not shy away from a “rodeo.” Certainly to date the military service giant has seized every opportunity to lasso, wrestle and take down every principal in the case -- judge, jury, the soldier plaintiffs, and even the US government. According to KBR, the judge acted badly by conducting a public trial and by refusing to require jurors to submit to defense interviews, in which each juror would explain why he decided as he did, and the jurors behaved badly by blindly accepting the troop's version of facts.

Since 2001, the military has awarded contracts to KBR worth more than $31 billion, but that hasn't stopped KBR from suing the goverment to recoup any financial judgments and costs. Yes, the government contract indemnifies KBR, but not for litigation costs, the Department of Justice says. The actual contract was declassified last month but made available only to involved parties. The Huffington Post has made a Freedom of Information request for the contract; whether the government's indemnity agreement actually sticks the taxpayers with the millions in payouts remains to be seen.

Jim Zarr, one of two jurors to speak with the Oregonian since the verdict, said that the most compelling evidence in the trial was the material safety data sheet for the compound. Some four months before KBR began cleanup, KBR had reviewed the MSDS for sodium dichromate, which states that it is:

“...very hazardous in case of skin contact (irritant, sensitizer), of eye contact (irritant), of ingestion. Hazardous in case of skin contact (corrosive, permeator), of eye contact (corrosive), of inhalation (lung irritant). Prolonged exposure may result in skin burns and ulcerations. Over-exposure by inhalation may cause respiratory irritation. Severe over-exposure can result in death."

KBR knew this and yet “let these guys wallow in it for three months,” Zarr said. KBR is also requesting a new trial even as similar cases await trial in Texas and Indiana, where two members of the Guard have already died.

Nora Eisenberg's work has appeared in the Village Voice, Tikkun, the Los Angeles Times, the Nation, and the Guardian UK. Her most recent novel, "When You Come Home" (Curbstone, 2009), explores the legacy of the 1991 Gulf War.