National Guardsmen Sue KGR over Toxic Exposure in Iraq

On December 17th sixteen members of the Indiana National Guard filed a lawsuit against Kellogg Brown Root (KBR), a major civilian contractor in Iraq.  KBR is a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation, recipients of a $60 billion no-bid contract shortly after the invasion of Iraq.

The soldiers say that they, along with other American civilian contractors, were exposed to an extremely toxic chemical at the Qarmat Ali water pumping plant in southern Iraq shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.  KBR was tasked with getting the plant up and running using civilian contractors. The National Guardsmen were assigned to protect the civilian workers.

The chemical in question was in the form of a bright orange powder scattered all around the worksite.  It is sodium dichromate, an inorganic compound containing a highly toxic form of chromium known as hexavalent chromium.  It is used as an anti-corrosive but poses a severe health hazard to humans who inhale or ingest it.  The powder is believed to have been left there by forces loyal to Saddam Hussein when they vacated the plant.

The Guardsmen and civilian contractors who worked there have described walking on and sitting near the bright orange powder that was widely dispersed throughout the grounds of the water plant.  Some of the Guardsmen are now suffering from nasal tumors or respiratory system problems and other health problems, according to the lawsuit. One of the guardsmen may have died from the exposure, though the exact cause of his death earlier this year is still not clear.

The suit alleges that KBR managers knew about the toxicity of the material but did nothing to inform the Guardsmen or other contractors about their potential exposure.  According to the attorney who filed the suit, “KBR managers knew full well long ago that this stuff was incredibly dangerous. But there was no information about it for years. And now these soldiers are facing some pretty serious health concerns. They’re going to be stuck with this the rest of their lives.”

There are some interesting parallels in this case which, if true, are reminiscent of the government’s denial on Agent Orange affecting Viet Nam veterans and asbestos causing cancer in World War II and Korea veterans.  It took decades for the military to acknowledge the health problems created by Agent Orange.  It is still difficult to get VA disability benefits for mesothelioma cancer, a disease caused by asbestos, despite the fact that one third of all U.S. citizens diagnosed with asbestos cancer are veterans.

The difference here is that the allegedly responsible party is not the government, but the biggest civilian contractor in Iraq.  As a private party, they are exposed to liability for which government agencies enjoy protection.  You can’t sue the Navy for asbestos exposure but you can certainly sue one of Halliburton’s companies for negligence.

Large segments of the Iraqi occupation have been managed in some fashion by contractors.  Halliburton has run mess halls and rebuilt water plants, taking on almost any task the Defense Department was willing to job out.  It will be interesting to see if other aspects of contracted military work will come under scrutiny by the troops who depended on private contractors on the ground.

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