Soldiers' lawsuit against KBR progresses

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Those from other Guard units claim they were also poisoned by sodium dichromate

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

TELL CITY - "I understand and accept there's danger with my line of service," said a lieutenant colonel who served at the Qarmat Ali water-treatment facility in Iraq. "What's very difficult for me to accept is if I'm working for KBR and they have knowledge of hazardous chemicals on the ground that can cause cancer and not share that knowledge, then that is putting my men at risk that is unnecessary. I'm very upset over that. Today I'm very, very upset. I feel like they should be ashamed that they did that."

Lt. Col. James Gentry, now retired, is battling a rare form of cancer he attributes to the sodium dichromate scattered on the ground and blowing in the wind at the site. His video-taped testimony was taken in December 2003.

A lawsuit filed by local National Guardsmen against defense contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root moved a step forward with a settlement conference Aug. 17.

The soldiers allege KBR failed to warn them about a cancer-causing chemical that endangered them as they protected company workers rebuilding the water-treatment site.

Settlement conferences are scheduled as a routine part of the litigation process, according to Mike Doyle, a Houston attorney representing current or former soldiers known collectively as the Tell City Guardsmen, who filed the civil lawsuit in December in U.S. District Court in Evansville.

To ensure all of the parties to the suit can speak freely, he explained, the conference discussions and outcomes are kept confidential.

The lawsuit will move forward, however, although it will likely move to August or later of next year, due, in part, to the addition of more soldiers as plaintiffs, including some from Oregon and West Virginia. The trial was originally set for May 3, 2010.

The News reported Aug. 6 that a former company commander for the soldiers assigned to the armory in Tell City testified before a Senate panel investigating the issue. Capt. Russell Kimberling told the panel military health officials had determined respiratory troubles he suffers are service-related, but won't connect them to the sodium dichromate scattered around the site.

According to an Aug. 12 story in the Indianapolis Star, "the Defense Health Board, an advisory committee to the secretary of defense that provides independent advice, has said the Army correctly concluded that Indiana National Guardsmen were not overexposed to the toxin."

"That's one of the reasons they had the (Senate) hearing," Doyle said Thursday, explaining reviewers looking at it "felt that wasn't a comprehensive investigation."

He said another Senate hearing is likely.

"They're very concerned that all of the Guardsmen were properly evaluated and will be taken care of," he said. Nine U.S. senators, including Evan Bayh and Harry Reid, "are very focused on it," he added. "That's a very good sign about ensuring things are done right."

Doyle said KBR was required to conduct a full environmental assessment before beginning work at the site, and company workers were at the site long before the soldiers arrived.

The chemical, made famous in a movie about Erin Brockovich, is used as an anti-corrosive agent injected into the water supply system for oil fields.

In reporting about the initial lawsuit in December, The News quoted testimony given by Edward Blacke, former KBR health and safety coordinator, before an earlier U.S. Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing as saying he identified and reported the contamination, but was rebuffed. He'd been told by an Iraqi interpreter "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."

When Blacke realized the danger, he reported it to his superiors.

"He was on a plane (out of Iraq) within 48 hours," Doyle said Thursday.

"It's absolutely crystal clear this stuff was so nasty," he said. But KBR was working under a cost-plus contract that promised bonus money for early completion, he added.

Gentry recalled beginning his duties at Qarmat Ali in June 2003. He didn't become aware of the hazardous chemical until three months later, when KBR employees suddenly began wearing protective suits.

Military members are trained to carry on their missions even when their environments are poisoned by chemicals manufactured to kill them.

Doing so is simply a matter of donning protective suits and masks if they're aware of a threat.

"I feel the responsibility of the U.S. soldiers is to provide a secure environment for the KBR employees to work," Gentry said. "I feel … if KBR had knowledge of chemicals within the environment, they should have informed the U.S. troops in such a way that we could also continue to protect the employees but in a different chemical posture that protects the U.S. soldier also."