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TELL CITY – As a contingent of Tell City-based soldiers were finishing their out-processing at Camp Atterbury Wednesday morning to complete their deployment to Iraq, attorneys representing some who served there five years ago were filing a civil lawsuit in Evansville regarding exposure to a cancer-causing chemical.
Sixteen current or former soldiers known collectively as the Tell City Guardsmen are named as plaintiffs in the complaint, filed in United States District Court Indiana Southern District against KBR Inc., Kellogg, Brown and Root Services Inc., KBR Technical Services Inc., Overseas Administrative Services Ltd and Service Employees International LLC.
KBR and its subsidiaries received billions of dollars in no-bid contracts for work in Iraq in 2003, the complaint states. Some of that work was performed at the Qarmat Ali water plant in southern Iraq, where Indiana National Guard soldiers performed security duties.
“Instead of doing what KBR promised and was paid to do for the Qarmat Ali project, KBR managers based in Kuwait City, (Kuwait); Houston, Texas; Alexandria, Va.; and elsewhere disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger of wholesale site contamination by sodium dichromate, a toxic chemical used at the site as an anti-corrosive and containing nearly pure hexavalent chromium,” according to Indianapolis and Houston attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “KBR managers knew about both the site contamination and the extreme danger of hexavalent chromium.”
The carcinogen became widely known to Americans after a legal clerk named Erin Brockovich initiated a campaign that led in 1996 to the largest direct-action lawsuit of its kind and a $333 million award to more than 600 residents of Hinkley, Calif. The chemical, also known as chromium 6, had been allowed to leak into groundwater from a Pacific Gas and Electric Co. plant.
In the current case, trial lawyers from the Houston-based Doyle-Raizner firm and Cohen and Malad of Indianapolis wrote that KBR's “knowing acts and omissions” subjected the Tell City Guardsmen, British troops and American civilians working at Qarmat Ali to “months and months” of unprotected direct exposure “to one of the most potent carcinogens and mutagenic substances known to man, hexavalent chromium.”
When they began to exhibit symptoms of acute hexavalent chromium poisoning, such as nosebleeds, “KBR managers told men onsite it was simply an effect of the dry desert air and they must be allergic to sand,” the complaint continues. “The Tell City Guardsmen were repeatedly told that there was no danger onsite, even after KBR managers knew that blood testing of American civilians exposed onsite confirmed elevated chromium levels.”
The alleged extent of KBR managers' knowledge about the danger wasn't made public until Congressional hearings were conducted in June.
Edward Blacke, former KBR health and safety coordinator, said during testimony given before a U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing then he identified and reported the hazard, but was rebuffed, according to a transcript at http://dpc.senate.gov/hearings/hearing44/transcript.pdf.
“KBR knew as early as May 2003 from a U.N. report,” he said, “and from their own industrial hygienist that they were putting not only our workers for KBR at risk, but the security details that had been provided to us by the U.S. and British military without any required training or personal ... protective equipment.”
Blacke laid out a long list of credentials before beginning to describe the problem, among them his certification as a construction-safety instructor and emergency medical technician. He's trained in hazardous-material identification and spill mitigation, he said, and has served as corporate- and construction-safety manager, including stints with American firms developing oil-field projects in Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria and the Republic of Chad.
While working for KBR in the Republic of Chad, he explained, he was recruited as a health, safety and environmental coordinator for the company's Restore Iraqi Oil project. He underwent a physical examination before reporting to the new job at the Qarmat Ali water-treatment plant near Basra, Iraq in July, 2003.
“One of my ancillary duties was as an emergency medical technician looking after the medical concerns of my colleagues,” he said. “When I arrived at the plant, as is required of our profession, I made a risk assessment of the facility and the surroundings, where I noticed ... a reddish-orange material spread on the ground, spilling from damaged bags in the injection building, a storage building, and ... in the drainage ditches. I asked for information on this material from my manager, the health, safety and environmental manager in Kuwait. (I) was sternly advised that it was a non-issue. I continued to press management for identification of the material, and in response was briefly sent to two other jobs before being returned to the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant.”
Within a week of his return, he said, he began to suffer sinus, throat and respiratory irritation. KBR, Halliburton and Iraqi Oil Co. employees and U.S. Army National Guard and British soldiers were suffering similar symptoms, which included continuous nose-bleeding, spitting up of blood, coughing, irritation of the eyes and shortness of breath. Blacke went through the plant with an interpreter, noting the chemical names on the bags: sodium dichromate.
“I asked my Iraqi interpreter if he was aware of what the material in the bags was used for and was advised that it was injected into the water supply system for the oil fields as an anti-corrosive,” Blacke told the committee. “My interpreter was reluctant to say more, but when pressed, he said he knew it was poisonous. He knew that there were many workers from the plant who had been made ill by it. And he said the fact that it was a poisonous material was one of the key reasons members of the Baath Party had opened the bags ... and spread their contents all over the plant as part of their sabotage efforts in the facility.”
The Tell City Guardsmen named in the suit are Jody Aistrop, William E. Bickell, Matthew D. Board, Larry Bunner, William DeLashmutt, Tommy J. Ebert Jr., Jeffrey Fromme, Jeffery Henke, Anthony Huff, Brent Lasher, Ben McIntyre, Mark McManaway, Micah Partlow, David Rancourt, Jeffrey A. Varner and Lucas R. Whistle.
McManaway said Thursday his symptoms are mild at the moment.
“I have a small nosebleed every once in a while, some burning in my eyes, a rash that comes up and some aches and pains,” he said. “I'm not as bad off as some other guys.”
In addition to those kinds of symptoms, attorney Mike Doyle explained, people exposed to the chemical have a “very elevated cancer risk.” They also develop a hypersensitivity to chromium, “which is in everything,” he added.
That includes certain types of leather gloves, said McManaway, a 55-year-old Cannelton resident who served in the military for 22 years before retiring as a staff sergeant. The father of four now hauls sand to Waupaca for a Wisconsin-based contractor.
For him, rashes appear and are gone in about eight hours. For others, “it can be two or three days before it goes away,” he said.
Doyle said the National Guard only began notifying soldiers about the issue within the last 60 days, and many of the current or former soldiers haven't had opportunities to visit doctors. Those who exhibit symptoms will have to undergo cancer screening every two or three years, he said, which will include collecting samples from deep within their lungs. Doyle said that means inhaling salt water, then doing “a deep cough” to expel it.
“It's evidently going to get worse,” McManaway said of his health when asked about his goal in pursuing the legal action. “I just want to be taken care of.”
Heather Browne, director of corporate communications for KBR, provided The News a statement about the suit Friday morning.
“KBR has not yet fully reviewed the lawsuit, so we are not providing comment on the suit at this time. The company does intend to vigorously defend itself,” her statement reads. “KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees, the troops and those we serve is the company's top priority. We deny the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition. 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.”
Jennifer Lynch, a public-affairs specialist for the Army Corps of Engineers, said Friday morning, “I can't comment on litigation that we're not a part of.”