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TELL CITY - It took six years, the cancer deaths of two National Guard soldiers, and the serious illness of dozens of others for the Pentagon to begin informing soldiers they had been exposed to highly toxic sodium dichromate in Iraq, according to a news release from DCBureau.org.
Now that the issue has received some attention, the organization said in a report released last week, "Congress has relegated its investigation to a powerless and partisan Senate committee."
The News has reported testimony offered before the Democratic Policy Committee by soldiers based in Tell City and other areas, and on a lawsuit filed in December in district court in Evansville, by 16 current or former soldiers known collectively as the Tell City Guardsmen.
The suit alleges Kellogg, Brown and Root and affiliated companies knew the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant in Iraq was heavily contaminated with the chemical and that it was a known carcinogen, but failed to inform soldiers protecting its workers.
Heather Browne, a KBR spokeswoman contacted by The News for a December story, denied "the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition," and added in a prepared statement, "KBR appropriately notified the Army Corps of Engineers upon discovery of the existence of the substance on the site and the Corps of Engineers concluded that KBR's efforts to remediate the situation were effective. Further, the company in no way condones any action that would compromise the safety of those we serve or employ."
"I remember the first few weeks we spent [in Iraq], we were constantly wearing chemical suits," Capt. Russell Kimberling said in the third of the four-part DCBureau.org report, titled, "No Contractor Left Behind; KBR, the Pentagon and the Soldiers Who Paid." The company commander for what was then Company C (or Charlie Company), 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry, Kimberling is quoted as saying the site was supposedly cleared by April 2003.
According to DCBureau. org's news release, the Army attributed recurring nosebleeds, body rashes, persistent coughing and pneumonia to sand and dust allergies.
"We were just told it was a mild irritant, don't worry about it," said Jody Aistrop, one of the Tell City-based soldiers bringing the lawsuit against KBR, in a December Democracy Now report. Bloody noses, burning eyes and rashes on their arms and legs, however, indicated a more serious problem. Their suspicions were eventually confirmed when the soldiers were pulled out of the water plant toward the end of their tour, Aistrop said.
"We guarded it from the outside, while the contractors were working inside," he explained, "and they actually had protective gear on."
DCBureau.org identifies itself as a nonprofit news agency staffed by award-winning journalists.
Its news release accused the Defense Department of trying to downplay soldiers' concerns that their health problems are a direct result of their exposure to the chemical at Qarmat Ali.
"The Army has relied on a faulty medical test performed on its National Guardsmen back in 2003, a test that a leading sodium dichromate expert told DC Bureau.org was inadequate," Adam G. Lichtenheld of the National Security News Service wrote in the release. "The Department of Veterans Affairs has used these findings to deny health coverage to sick veterans."
"Congress, meanwhile, has entrusted the Qarmat Ali probe - and the slew of contracting scandals that have plagued the Pentagon over the past half-decade - to the Democratic Policy Committee," Lichtenheld wrote. "But the DPC lacks the power to subpoena documents and compel testimony, rendering it unable to conduct a full investigation. Despite Qarmat Ali being the most recent controversy in a string of accusations against KBR, including contracting fraud, bribery, wrongful death, sexual assault and shoddy work that has killed several soldiers, KBR remains the Army's largest war contractor."