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Home» Governmental Affairs » Congressional Hearings » Oregonlive: With hexavalent chromium lawsuit pending, Oregon Democrats challenge war contractors’ immunity in new bill

Oregonlive: With hexavalent chromium lawsuit pending, Oregon Democrats challenge war contractors’ immunity in new bill

Original Article on Oregon Live

Oregon Democrats on Wednesday moved to stop the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with war contractors and to keep taxpayers from bailing out negligent contractors.

U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced a bill in both houses to boost Congressional oversight of defense contracts worth more than $1 million, revoke immunity for harm caused by a contractor’s misconduct, and limit immunity in future agreements.

The legislation is the strongest response yet to an Oregon lawsuit against Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Twenty six Oregon Army National Guard veterans have sued KBR, saying managers downplayed or dismissed their exposure to a cancer-causing chemical early in the Iraq war. During depositions in U.S. District Court in Portland, a KBR attorney revealed he’d secured a secret agreement that requires taxpayers — not KBR — to pay for any death, injury or property damage during the Restore Iraqi Oil contract.

“We’re trying to come up with a ‘Never again’ policy,” Wyden said. “The private contractor who takes irresponsible risks with our soldiers is going to have to pay a price.”

Last week, Blumenauer redoubled his pressure on KBR. In a Sept. 23 letter, he again asked the Defense Department to declassify the entire KBR contract. And, he asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to list any contractors granted similar immunity. Earlier this summer, the Army insisted KBR’s agreement was unique. But Blumenauer said he has since learned some contractors may have similar protection under the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act or with other branches of the service.

“No company that has done wrong can be allowed to hide behind the government,” Blumenauer wrote. “No government agency can be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.”

Blumenauer also released a research report of allegations against KBR and was troubled by the apparent lack of accountability.

He said he was responding to the plight of the Oregon soldiers who suffer breathing, skin and stomach problems from hexavalent chromium exposure. “For me, it’s keeping faith with the more than two dozen people whose lives were turned upside down.”

In 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, the Army Corps of Engineers signed a no-bid contract with KBR to restore oil production after combat ended. A key site was a Soviet-built plant at Qarmat Ali where water from the Tigris River was injected to drive oil in nearby fields to the surface. The water was treated with sodium dichromate, a rust fighter that contains hexavalent chromium, a well-documented carcinogen.

The Inspector General reported Sept. 17 that 977 men and women from Oregon, Indiana, West Virginia and South Carolina National Guard units and the Corps of Engineers served at the plant. Among them were 277 Oregon Guard between late April and July 2003.

But the troops didn’t know piles of fine orange powder that coated their uniforms was dangerous until 2008, when KBR employees testified of their own health problems at Senate hearings on contractor waste, fraud and abuse. Soldiers filed suit in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Texas and Oregon.

KBR attorneys twice asked the Oregon court to dismiss the case. After U.S. District Magistrate Paul Papak ruled it should proceed, KBR sought an unusual appeal to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals even before the trial is held. Papak scheduled an Oct. 20 hearing in Portland on the motion. An appeal could delay the case for years — or end it outright. Already, three prominent Senate critics of KBR have died or announced their retirements. Wyden says he assumed their advocacy for better monitoring.

Wyden, Schrader and Blumenauer, who are all running for re-election, have championed the exposed Oregon veterans since last year, beginning with Schrader personally calling the vets at home and Wyden meeting them shortly after.

Last month, the Department of Veterans Affairs announced a registry for Qarmat Ali vets to better track their health.

“When you see the folks coughing, you don’t walk away from that kind of suffering,” Wyden said.

KBR declined to comment on the legislation. Spokeswoman Heather Browne referred questions to a KBR fact sheet on its website. In it, KBR maintains it was not responsible for the sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali, posted signs saying it was a dangerous chemical and maintains that no medical data support claims of health problems.

“KBR will continue its vigorous defense in the pending litigation,” the fact sheet states.


Original Article on Oregon Live

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Posted by on Sep 30 2010. Filed under Congressional Hearings, Oregon Live. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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