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Trial date set in Guardsmen civil suit

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KBR says soldiers knew danger of chemical exposure

By Kevin Koelling, Managing Editor

INDIANAPOLIS – A trial has been scheduled to begin May 3, 2010 to determine whether military contractors knowingly allowed Tell City-based soldiers to be exposed to a hazardous substance while serving in Iraq.

The Indianapolis Star reported Feb. 3 that Judge Richard L. Young scheduled the trial for 10 days and set a settlement conference for Aug. 17.

The News reported Dec. 8 that 16 current or former soldiers known collectively as the Tell City Guardsmen filed a civil lawsuit five days earlier in U.S. District Court in Evansville. They contend defense contractor KBR Inc. and affiliated companies working at the Qarmat Ali water plant in southern Iraq in 2003 knew the site was contaminated with sodium dichromate, a toxic chemical used as an anti-corrosive. It contains hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen described in the movie, "Erin Brockovich," a legal clerk who successfully pursued legal action against a California utility for exposing Hinkley, Calif., residents to the chemical.

Heather Browne, director of corporate communications for KBR, told The News in December the company notified the Army Corps of Engineers upon discovery of the substance, and the Corps 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," said a prepared statement Browne provided.

In a response to the civil complaint filed Dec. 22, the company asserts, among other things, that the soldiers "voluntarily incurred or assumed the risk of their injuries with full and complete knowledge of all relevant and known dangers and threats."

Their claims "present non-justiciable political questions which threaten the Constitutional requirement of separation of powers, because, (among other things), the resolution of plaintiffs' claims would impermissibly draw the court into sensitive military (matters) which must be protected from judicial scrutiny," the response continues.

Also included in the company's list of arguments are an assertion that the soldiers' claims "are barred by the state secrets doctrine," any health effects could have been pre-existing conditions or "ordinary diseases of life" not caused by the company, and the court lacks jurisdiction.

The company is represented by attorneys with the Ice Miller legal firm in Indianapolis.