Wednesday, March 11, 2009

KBR hid danger of hexavalent chromium from U.S. soldiers protecting it in Iraq

PORTLAND, Ore. - In addition to gouging the U.S. government, KBR can now take credit for widespread cancers prevalent in U.S. troops assigned to provide security for its employees while it went about its lucrative mission of restoring Iraq’s oil industry.
Dust coated the combat boots and caked the skin of soldiers assigned to protect KBR Halliburton employees and contractors restoring oil flow in Iraq in 2003. Dust puffed from the soldiers' uniforms as they crowded into vans at the end of the day and shared tents at night.
When the dust blew onto Spc. Larry Roberta's ready-to-eat meal, he rinsed the chicken patty with his canteen water and ate it.
Six months later, doctors discovered the flap into Roberta's stomach had disintegrated. Six years later, the Marine and former police officer can no longer walk to the mailbox or work.
Another Oregon soldier, Sgt. Nicholas Thomas, died of complications of leukemia at age 21. Three others have reported lung problems to headquarters. Five more told The Oregonian they suffer chronic coughs, rashes and immune system disorders.
The Oregon National Guard soldiers who went to Iraq faced exposure to hexavalent chromium, which greatly increased their risk of contracting cancer and other diseases. It was in the orange and yellow dust spread over half of the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant by fleeing Saddam supporters.
Scientists call the carcinogen a Trojan horse because the damage may not be immediately obvious. Over time, people can develop different cancers, breathing problems, stomach ulcers or damage to the digestive tract.
Ninety-three Oregon soldiers may still not know that they have been exposed to hexavalent chromium. The Oregon Guard sent registered letters notifying them March 6, six years after their deployment.
Officials say they didn't learn of the problem themselves until November 2008, when the Army, spurred by lawsuits in Indiana and Texas and a subsequent Senate investigation, alerted the Oregon Guard. The suits claim KBR ignored both a United Nations report and its own employees' warnings about the danger.
The Oregon Guard has sent 286 letters to soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 162nd Infantry Division, about possible exposure. Fewer than 20 have responded to the Department of Veterans Affairs or the Guard.
The 1/162 was broken up in an Army reorganization in 2006. Fewer than half of the soldiers who were deployed are still in the Guard. Forty letters have been returned unopened. The Portland Veterans Administration’s chief environmental-agent doctor has seen only four soldiers.
Larry and Michelle Roberta of Aumsville received the Guard's letter Feb. 26 notifying them of his possible exposure. They set the letter aside. Roberta has known since July 2003 when an Army medic recorded exposure to hexavalent chromium at the water plant.
"We knew he was exposed since the very beginning," says Michelle Roberta, 38. "I sent a very healthy man over there. He did not come back."
The 1/162 arrived at its base of operations in Kuwait on April 18, 2003, and within weeks, the soldiers were assigned to escort and protect KBR contractors on a mission called "Restore Iraqi Oil."
Houston-based Kellogg, Brown & Root Services, then a subsidiary of Halliburton, which was headed by Dick Cheney before he became U.S. vice president in the George W. Bush administration, won the contract to get the oil flowing in Iraq. Repairing the water treatment plant, which maintained pressure in nearby oil wells, was a top priority.
Soldiers, officers and the undersecretary of the Army's manager for the project say that Oregon platoons rotated from Kuwait into Iraq in three- to four-day intervals from April 2003 until June 2003. Oregon soldiers met KBR workers at a rest stop on the main highway into Iraq, then accompanied them in the contractors' SUVs to pipelines, oil fields or the water treatment plant.
Just weeks after the Indiana Guard replaced the Oregonians, a new KBR safety officer arrived at the water treatment plant at Qarmat Ali. Ed Blacke was shocked by the widespread orange and yellow dust piled feet deep in places. The powder, he learned, was a corrosion fighter that contained hexavalent chromium. Soon he had sinus, throat and breathing problems, and found that 60 percent of the soldiers and staff at Qarmat Ali had identical symptoms. KBR managers told him it was "a nonissue."
Blacke described the sequence of events to a Senate committee in June 2008.
According to a subsequent Senate query, KBR did not test the site until August 2003 or notify the Army until September 2003. The Indiana Guard learned of the contamination when KBR managers showed up in protective suits. KBR closed the plant shortly after. (Source: Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian, March 7, 2009)

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