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Soldiers sue contractor for toxic exposure in Iraq

Jennifer Nelson
December 4, 2008
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Sixteen members of Indiana National Guard have filed a lawsuit against a Texas-based contractor working in Iraq for exposing the soldiers to a toxic chemical known to increase the risk of developing cancer.

The plaintiffs, who were primarily deployed through a military company based in Tell City, Ind., filed Dec. 3 the federal lawsuit, Mark McManaway, et al. v. KBR, Inc., et al., No. 3:08-cv-0186, in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis. The guardsmen worked at the Qarmat Ali water plant in southern Iraq for a six-month period in 2003 assisting KBR in restoring the water plant so it could resume pumping water into oil wells for a more consistent oil flow. The suit claims KBR downplayed and ignored the danger of the site contamination by sodium dichromate, a toxic chemical used at the water plant as an anti-corrosive that contains nearly pure hexavalent chromium.

Exposure to hexavalent chromium can increase a person's chance to develop various types of cancer and other illnesses. Several of the guardsmen have already become ill as a result of the exposure in 2003, including nasal cancers and rashes, said attorney David Cutshaw, partner at Cohen & Malad, who is representing the soldiers along with Doyle Raizner of Houston.

The soldiers claim they were repeatedly told by the company there was no danger on the site while they worked there, and that their bloody noses and skin lesions were a result of the dry desert air. It was later revealed the company knew of the danger as early as April 2003; the contaminated site was shut down in September 2003.

It wasn't until a congressional hearing in June 2008 did the government and U.S. Army learn how much KBR actually knew about the danger of exposure at the water plant and their ongoing cover-up of soldiers' exposure to the chemical.

In July, commander of the Indiana National Guard started locating and notifying the soldiers who worked at the water plant of their possible exposure to the chemical, Cutshaw said.

"The one thing that really got to me about this is (the soldiers) could have been receiving treatment for the last five years, but KBR has been hiding it," he said.

The suit alleges negligence and gross negligence on the part of KBR for failing to inform and protect the guardsmen from exposure to the hexavalent chromium. As a result of KBR's acts and omissions, the guardsmen are seeking compensation for their personal injuries and damages they currently have and will likely have in the future. The suit claims as a result of their exposure, the guardsmen have been exposed to a greater risk of severe injury or death and will need ongoing health care.

The applicable statute of limitations shouldn't apply in this case because KBR just a few months ago was still providing information to the U.S. Army that denied any knowledge of the site contamination until July 2003, the suit alleges.

Cutshaw said there are a reported 141 soldiers from the Indiana National Guard assigned to patrol the Qarmat Ali water plant, as well as soldiers from Scotland and Great Britain. He said he hadn't heard of any other suits dealing with this issue but thinks once more people learn about this suit, they could file their own or join this suit.

According to Cutshaw, KBR is currently involved in arbitration with KBR civilian employees who worked on the site regarding this issue and that arbitration is set to begin next week.

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