KBR Tells Court It Was Following Military Orders When Employees Burned Toxic Waste in Open Pits


In October a class action suit combining 22 lawsuits from 43 states was filed in US District Court in Maryland against KBR, Halliburton, and other military contractors for damages to health from open air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.  According to plaintiffs' lawyers the military contracting giant had been paid millions of dollars to safely dispose of waste on bases but negligently burned refuse in open pits, spewing toxins, including known carcinogens, into the air. Last week, KBR sought to dismiss the charges. Their tack was not to deny that they burned lithium batteries, petroleum, asbestos, trucks, cars, paint, plastic, Styrofoam, medical waste including human limbs, and more, as the soldiers have charged, but to challenge their liability for any ensuing problems.  According to KBR's press fact sheet on the suit, the Army, not KBR, decides if a burn pit or an incinerator will be used, where it will be built in relation to living and working facilities, and what it can burn. KBR insists it was and is still  just “performing under the direction and control of military commanders in the field.” In short, they were only following orders and the soldiers are going after the wrong guy.

But in the Bush-Cheney government, the DoD and its contractor were best buddies if not one and the same guy. As Defense Secretary, when the large scale  privatization of the military's civil logistics activities was still just a gleam in his eye, Cheney paid KBR almost  $9 million to study the feasibility and advisability of private companies handling massive logistics. In a classified report, KBR determined that privatizing civilian logistics was a good idea for the governement, and later that year Cheney awarded KBR the first comprehensive LOGCAP contract. Three years later Cheney became CEO of Halliburton and its subsidiary KBR. Two years after that, KBR was fired by the Clinton DoD for fraudulent billing, only to be rehired when the Bush Cheney DoD renewed its contract in 2001. KBR is the largest government contractor in Iraq, earning more than $20 billion dollars for logistical support of troops alone, often in no-bid contracts riddled with obvious but overlooked fraud.

Until recently, the DoD was deaf to the stories coming out of Iraq about “plume crud” and "black goop," as soldiers have termed the dark slime that those living and working close to the burn pits' black smoke blow out of their noses and cough, spit, and vomit from their mouths, or the reports of breathing problems, cancers, and deaths. But they clearly knew about the practices and its problems of the pits its contractors had built and continued to run.  As early as 2006 Air Force Bioenvironmental Engineering Flight Commander Darrin Curtis warned senior officials about the risks of the largest burn pit at the Balad Airbase 70 kilometers north of Baghdad. In a memo he titled “Burn Pit Health Hazards,” he wrote, “It is amazing that the burn pit has been able to operate without restrictions over the past few years without significant engineering controls being put in place.” Curtis cited the toxic byproducts of the burning waste, including benzene, arsenic, sulfuric acid, and other carcinogens, as “an acute health hazard for individuals” and the smoke itself as a possible "chronic health hazard.” In 2008, the Pentagon distributed a burn pit fact sheet to troops, acknowledging some carcinogens in 2004-2006 air samples reported in classified studies, but asserting that “the potential short- and long-term risks were estimated to be low due to the infrequent detections of these chemicals....Based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidance, long-term health effects are not expected to occur from breathing the smoke.” The fact sheet failed to mention that 2007 air samples found toxic particulates, including dioxin, benzene, cyanide, and arsenic at as many as six times the allowable levels.

Thanks to courageous soldiers, their families, veterans groups, and reporters, the truth is emerging. Kelly Kennedy, a reporter for the independent Gannett Co newsweekly the Military Times,  first challenged the official story in the press, in October 2008, in one of a long series of compelling pieces on troop health and burn-pits that this week earned her Columbia University School of Journalismn's prestigious Oakes Prize certificate of merit. In her article “Burn Pit at Balad Raises Health Concerns,” Kennedy wrote that though the government denies it, “tens of thousands of troops, contractors and Iraqis” may have been exposed to “cancer-causing dioxins, poisons such as arsenic and carbon monoxide, and hazardous medical waste.” The story stimulated a strong response among sick troops, as Kennedy reported in a Decemeber 2008 follow-up piece: “Though military officials say there are no known long-term effects from exposure to burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan, more than 100 service members have come forward to Military Times and Disabled American Veterans with strikingly similar symptoms: chronic bronchitis, asthma, sleep apnea, chronic coughs and allergy-like symptoms. Several also have cited heart problems, lymphoma and leukemia.” Kennedy quoted Kerry Baker, DAV legislative director and collaborator in information gathering:  “Everything seems to be pointing opposite to what the Defense Department is saying.”

President Obama has said that the White House is paying attention and that he will make sure that the burn pits don't become another Agent Orange. VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has made similar remarks: “How do we change what has been the 40-year journey of Agent Orange, the 20-year journey of Gulf War Illness, and prevent a similar journey for burn pit smoke?” Congress has begun to address the matter with legislation that mandates regular reporting on the burn pits and examination of alternatives but no shutting down of the 80 pits still operating in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Pentagon has held out the longest, insisting till now that no evidence of health problems exists beyond temporary irritations. Last month, R. Craig Postlewaite, the Pentagon’s acting director of force health protection and readiness, stated that “some people probably have suffered some untoward health effects.” By Postlewaite's calculation, 56 percent of troops returning from war zones report exposure to burn-pit smoke.

According to Susan Burke, the Virginia attorney initiating the class action suit, the burn-pit maladies are pulmonary for the most part. Her co-counsel, the DC office of the law firm Motley, Rice, cites on its website some 25 problems including asthma; bronchitis; cancer of the brain, bone, skin, and blood; infections; unexpected weight loss; sleep apnea; and weeping lesions. In their motion to dismiss, KBR maintains that no evidence links smoke exposure to such conditions. But more importantly, they claim, it has little to do with them since they were only following the command of its trusted leaders. The Obama administration has taken steps to trim KBR's wings and its multi-million dollar over-charges. But KBR continues to be the government's largest military contractor, and how the two sort out liability for the massive level of troop illnesses emerging from our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan remains to be seen. If the case goes forward, KBR has said in its recent court motions, they would ask the court to “substitute” the military's judgment “across numerous matters,” law360.com reports. What such legalese means is unclear but intriguing, leaving us to wonder if KBR means to point a finger or continue to work hand-in-hand with an old friend.

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