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Home» News Coverage » Qarmat Ali News » Redmond veteran among 26 suing Iraq contractor

Redmond veteran among 26 suing Iraq contractor

ERIN GOLDEN • The Associated Press

Aaron St. Clair was nearly home from Iraq when he got the bad news.

The Redmond soldier was at Fort Lewis, Wash., with other Oregon National Guard troops, filling out paperwork and marking the last few days of a long deployment when a lieutenant pulled him aside.
Months earlier, he said, there had been a problem.
In the spring of 2003, Oregon soldiers had been assigned to provide security to private contractors surveying the country’s ruined infrastructure. They’d ride along in SUVs, usually two soldiers to a vehicle, and then keep watch for anyone looking to put a stop to the work.
For many soldiers, one of the stops was at a water treatment plant in Basra, a city in southern Iraq.
St. Clair, who spent two days there, remembers that there were industrial-size bags stacked all over the site. Some had been slashed open, and a bright yellow powdery substance had spilled over the ground. A contractor mentioned something to some of the workers about staying away from the bags.
It wasn’t until the conversation at Fort Lewis that St. Clair figured out why the man was worried: The bags were filled with an anticorrosive chemical that contains hexavalent chromium, a toxic substance that has been linked to a long list of health problems, including cancer.
Six years after he returned home, St. Clair, now 36, says he suffers from skin rashes, digestive problems and gets short of breath without much effort. And he along with more than two dozen other Oregon soldiers who are suing the contractor, former Halliburton subsidiary KBR Inc., in federal court says he wants someone held accountable.
KBR officials have denied allegations that the company knew there were environmental hazards at the Qarmat Ali water treatment facility and sent troops into harm’s way. But soldiers, legislators and a federal judge in Oregon have said that the company was aware of the risk, failed to warn the U.S. Army, and brought more of the substance to the facility after soldiers had begun working there.
At Fort Lewis, St. Clair was told he’d been put on a list of soldiers who had been exposed. He got a brief explanation of hexavalent chromium, a substance that’s best known as the water contaminant that sparked Erin Brockovich’s efforts in California. The affected troops were told to contact the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs if they had any concerns.
After he came home to Redmond, St. Clair didn’t mention it to anyone.
“I just kind of left it alone,” he said.
About six months later, St. Clair still hadn’t told his family, but he was getting worried. Health problems he’d started to notice while still in Iraq weren’t going away and seemed to be getting progressively worse.
Before and during the deployment, St. Clair was a regular runner who had no trouble keeping up in punishing conditions.
“We’d carry 50 pounds of gear in 120- to 130-degree heat for 10 to 12 hours, no problem,” he said.
At home and on his job at Home Depot, St. Clair found himself gasping for breath doing everyday tasks. Now, he said he gets winded going up the stairs or trying to chase after his 8-year-old son.
St. Clair declined to share his medical records because of the pending lawsuit, but said doctors have been unable to provide much help and don’t seem to know how bad things could get.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, workers exposed to hexavalent chromium are at an increased risk for lung cancer and often have other associated problems, including nosebleeds, eye irritation, and kidney and liver damage. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has specific guidelines for how materials containing the substance should be handled, such as providing respirators for employees who might breathe it in.
For years, St. Clair said he quietly accepted what had happened to him. When he signed up, he knew he was agreeing to face risks of all kinds.
“That was just the environment we were in,” he said.
But others weren’t ready to move on without an explanation.
In 2008, after concerns about the Qarmat Ali facility were raised by civilian workers, politicians started paying attention. KBR employees were called to testify about health problems they’d encountered after working at the water treatment plant.
Soldiers filed federal lawsuits in Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon, alleging that KBR was negligent because it went ahead with its operations even after knowing that the chemicals on the site could make people sick. The Indiana and West Virginia cases were later consolidated into a single case in a Texas federal court.
Mike Doyle, a Houston attorney representing the soldiers, said the case currently involves 148 U.S. and British soldiers who are suffering negative health effects. It is scheduled to go to trial in May 2012.
KBR made attempts to get the Oregon case, which currently involves 26 soldiers, dismissed.
But last month, U.S. District Magistrate Paul Papak ruled that the case would go forward, noting that evidence shows KBR knew about the contamination and brought more sodium dichromate, the material that contains hexavalent chromium, to the site.
KBR officials have said the substance was left behind by Iraqis.
Papak also found that the company was required by contract to provide an environmental assessment of the site, another assertion the company disputes.
In a statement, KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne wrote that the company held an arbitration with employees who worked at the site, and found no related illnesses or liability.
“Based on testing by both the military and KBR we believe there was no hazardous exposure and there has been no documented illness related to the facility,” she wrote. “More importantly, our Statement of Work with the Army obligated them to provide us with a facility that was free from all environmental and war hazards.’ Once we discovered the potential contamination at the site we took appropriate steps.”
The soldiers aren’t buying the company’s argument.
David Sugerman, the Portland attorney representing the Oregon troops suing KBR, said he’s about to add another 12 veterans to the case and include Halliburton as another named defendant. He hopes the case will go to trial as soon as next fall.
The soldiers are seeking both economic and noneconomic damages, to be determined at trial.
“Some of these soldiers are very sick, to the point of not being able to work, and they are very concerned about their health,” Sugerman said. “They’re really concerned, based on their present level of dysfunction, what will happen to them. Some are concerned about the future, especially the risk of cancer.”
Doyle said two soldiers involved in his case, both from Indiana, have died from cancer since returning home.
Outside of the courtroom, the cases have sparked the interest of politicians in several states, including several members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.
Some helped push for an expansive registry of soldiers affected by hexavalent chromium.
U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader introduced a bill that would give Congress more oversight of major defense contracts. Blumenauer has pushed the Department of Defense to make public the Army’s contract with KBR.
Sugerman said the cases are about individual soldiers, but also about something much bigger. He said he sees them as a chance to provide the kind of support that many Vietnam-era veterans exposed to Agent Orange never received.
“One way I think about this is, OK, we can agree or disagree about whether any war, this war or that war is a good idea or a bad idea,” Sugerman said. “We can agree or disagree on all sorts of things, but some things are totally unacceptable. Number one: Our troops, when they volunteer, have to have our support. Number two: We do not let contractors pursuing outrageous profits act with absolute recklessness and sacrifice our troops in the name of profits, which I think is what’s happened here. And number three: We don’t turn our back on returning vets when they get back.”
St. Clair said he’s glad to hear that people are talking about what happened even if he’s a bit hesitant to make a show out of his own health problems.
He does his best to keep his health problems from holding him back. He hopes they won’t get worse in the near future, especially because he’s busy at home with his wife and 8-year-old and 11-month-old sons. Another baby is on the way.
When it comes to the future, he’s matter of fact.
“Exposure to it is said to cause cancer, so it ups my chances,” he said.
But St. Clair said he doesn’t place any blame with the military or regret his decision to serve in Iraq even knowing what he does now about that strange yellow powder all over the ground.
“Absolutely, I would do it again,” he said.

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