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Home» News Coverage » Defense Department Inspector General says KBR and the military failed to respond quickly to health risks posed to Oregon soldiers

Defense Department Inspector General says KBR and the military failed to respond quickly to health risks posed to Oregon soldiers

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Mike Francis, The Oregonian Mike Francis, The Oregonian

The Defense Department and contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root failed to act as quickly as they should have to protect those exposed to a carcinogenic chemical at an Iraqi water treatment plant in 2003, according to a report Wednesday by the Defense Department’s Inspector General.

The report was hailed as a victory for Oregon soldiers by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who was one of a group of senators who sought the IG’s evaluation, and by Oregon National Guard troops who are among those suing KBR. They accuse the contractor of knowingly exposing them to sodium dichromate, an anticorrosive compound that can cause skin and breathing problems and cancer.

Because KBR “did not fully comply with occupational safety and health standards required” under its contract with the Army, the Inspector General found, “a greater number of Service members and DoD civilian employees were exposed to sodium dichromate, and for longer periods, increasing the potential for chronic health effects.”

The report found that “nearly 1,000 Army soldiers and civilian employees were exposed to the compound in the five months it took from the initial site visit until the military command required personal protective equipment.”

“To me, the bottom line is this report confirms what Oregon soldiers and I have been saying for years,” said Wyden. “KBR and the military command failed to protect soldiers from a known threat.”

Houston-based KBR couldn’t be reached for comment before deadline. KBR has previously denied knowingly exposing soldiers or contractors to health risks.

Rocky Bixby of Tualatin, the former Oregon National Guard soldier who is listed as the first plaintiff in the suit against KBR, said Wednesday afternoon that he hadn’t yet seen the report, but is “obviously happy.”

“I’m just happy that the government is making a stand on this and protecting its troops,” said Bixby, who says he continues to suffer breathing difficulties that started after he helped secure the plant where KBR was working to restore water service.

The 56-page report also faults the military’s handling of the work at Qarmat Ali, from the vague wording of its initial contract to its failure to monitor the contractor’s compliance with its terms.

The report “restores faith in government,” said Portland lawyer David Sugerman, who represents the 34 Oregon Guard veterans suing KBR. Sugerman said he’d contacted a handful of his clients to tell them about the report. The reaction they’d given, he said, is “validation and vindication.”

The case in federal court in Portland is in the discovery phase, with the trial scheduled for June next year, Sugerman said.

Another case brought against KBR by lawyers for soldiers from the Indiana National Guard and other states is proceeding in Houston.

Oregon soldiers escorted contractors to the Qarmat Ali plant, built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s to provide water needed to service some of the oil fields in southern Iraq, beginning in April 2003.

According to the report, KBR became aware sodium dichromate had been used at the site by May 31. It notified the contracting officer of potential contamination Aug. 8. On Sept. 30, a team of Army public health specialists arrived to begin their own assessment of conditions at the site. They gave physical exams to 129 Indiana troops still on the site, and they gave surveys to 52 Oregon soldiers who had left the site.

The decision by the public health officials to physically examine only some of those who served at Qarmat Ali, the Inspector General wrote, “created a lost opportunity for medical recognition and documentation of symptoms.”

Not all surveys were returned, but 18 percent of the responses showed symptoms that could be related to chromium exposure, according to the report.

Many IG reports contain a set of recommendations to prevent a recurrence of the problems identified, but because exposure in the Qarmat Ali case occurred in 2003 and the military has made many changes since then, the report has no recommendations.

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