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NBC Nightly News – Guardsmen suing KBR for chemical exposure

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National Guardsmen suing KBR for chemical exposure

December 30, 2009 Wednesday
NBC Nightly News 6:30 PM EST NBC

NBC News Transcripts

We’re back and we have an NBC News investigation tonight that takes us back to Iraq in 2003, after the combat phase of the war was over. American troops were working alongside contractors from private corporations, racing to get that nation’s oil flowing again, as you’ll recall. Tonight we bring you the story of some Army National Guardsmen who are suing the defense contractor KBR, accusing the company of putting them in a different kind of danger in the war zone. Here is our senior investigative corespondent Lisa Myers.

Mr. LARRY ROBERTA: Independence Hall.

LISA MYERS reporting:

When National Guardsman Larry Roberta went to Iraq, he expected sandstorms, physical hardship, perhaps even combat. What he didn’t expect was this: orange dust all over the place at a plant where his unit was assigned to provide security for contractors working for Kellogg Brown and Root, KBR. The workers were repairing the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant, needed to supply water to Iraqi oil fields.

Mr. ROBERTA: You could taste stuff in the air that–it had a really strange metallic taste.

MYERS: Roberta and others say the dust was throughout the plant and the grounds, and permeated the air during sandstorms.

Mr. ROBERTA: And it blew up in my face and on my chicken patty and my mouth and stuff like that. I didn’t really think a whole lot of it, other than it tasted really bad, and made me throw up and burned.

MYERS: Another Guardsman, Captain Russ Kimberling, says he asked KBR officials what the orange dust was.

Captain RUSS KIMBERLING: And what we got from them was it’s a mild irritant.

MYER: The orange dust actually was a highly toxic chemical, sodium dichromate, which had been used by the Iraqis prior to the war to prevent corrosion in pipes. Scientists have found that the chemical can cause lung cancer in humans. There were hundreds of bags of it at the plant, clearly labeled. Six years later, several Guardsmen who spent time at the site have reported rashes, perforated septums and severe respiratory problems. Former Lieutenant Colonel James Gentry developed a rare lung cancer. First Sergeant David Moore developed lung disease.

Larry Roberta, who hiked up Mount Sinai before he went to Iraq, now struggles to catch his breath when he walks. He has serious stomach and liver issues, migraines and acute respiratory problems.

Mr. ROBERTA: You almost feel like you’re–like you’re drowning. Like you want to breath but you just can’t.

MYERS: A KBR spokesman says the company immediately notified the Army as soon as it discovered there was sodium dichromate contamination at the plant. That, the company says, was in late July 2003. But an internal KBR document says a company technician actually identified the chemical at the site in May. Yet another KBR document warns of potential contamination at the site, and suggests testing and cleanup. It’s dated June 21st, more than a month before the Army was alerted. It wasn’t until late August that the Guardsmen became aware of the danger, and then only because they saw images like this, KBR workers wearing white chemical suits.

Capt. KIMBERLING: They were in full protective chemical gear, you know, from head to toe. I kind of looked at one of my men and just said, `This can’t be good, can it?’

MYERS: These and other Guardsmen are now suing KBR, charging that the company knowingly endangered their lives. KBR strongly denies wrongdoing. The company says it was the Army’s responsibility to ensure the site was free of environmental hazards and that tests done by the Army concluded that no soldier encountered a significant inhalation exposure. The company also disputes claims that the chemical made Guardsmen sick. We went to one of the foremost experts on sodium dichromate, Dr. Herman Gibb.

KBR says that there was simply no evidence that soldiers were harmed by exposure to this chemical.

Dr. HERMAN GIBB: I don’t see how they can say there’s no evidence. I mean, they experienced symptoms that are consistent with sodium dichromate exposure. The exposure must have been fairly significant to be associated with these symptoms.

MYERS: Since our interview, Dr. Gibb has been hired by lawyers representing the Guardsmen to review material for their case. Recently the Army acknowledged that 700 soldiers may have been exposed to the chemical at the plant. The Defense Department is now investigating. David Moore died last year at age 42. James Gentry died the day before Thanksgiving. Larry Roberta struggles just to get through each day.

Capt. KIMBERLING: They said it was a mild irritant. That’s what I told my soldiers, and suck it up and drive on with the–with the mission.

Mr. ROBERTA: IF KBR did now…(clears throat)…excuse me—about this before we were there, it should have been rectified.

MYERS: Lisa Myers, NBC News, Washington.

WILLIAMS: When NBC NIGHTLY NEWS continues in just a moment, who do we admire most these days in this country? Some new poll numbers are out tonight.

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