Soldiers claim illness after guarding KBR in Iraq

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PORTLAND, Ore. — A war contractor knew a critical southern Iraq oilfield plant was riddled with a well-known toxin but ignored the risk to soldiers while hurrying the project along, firing a whistleblower and covering up the presence of the chemical when faced with exposure, the soldiers’ attorney said in opening arguments Wednesday in a federal civil suit.

An attorney for the contractor, Kellogg, Brown and Root, fired back in his opening salvo of a trial expected to last weeks that the soldiers’ injuries weren’t a result of their exposure to the toxin, called sodium dichromate. Geoffrey L. Harrison argued that the company had no knowledge of the chemical’s presence at the plant and when they found it, they promptly and repeatedly warned the military of the danger.

A jury of six men and six women will decide whether the company is culpable for 12 Oregon National Guardsmen’s exposure to the toxin, a known carcinogen, and whether that exposure led to their ongoing respiratory illnesses. The soldiers will also try to show that the fear of future illnesses is causing them to suffer emotional distress.

The irony, said the soldiers’ attorney, Mike Doyle, “is that every single one of these men had a chemical hazard suit they would have put on instantly if they had known.”

KBR tried to warn the U.S. Army about the dangers, Harrison said, but didn’t go to the soldiers themselves because that wasn’t the proper channel of communication.

Doyle said an attempt by a KBR employee in August or September 2003 to blow the whistle on the company’s role in the alleged deception of the soldiers was met with the man’s dismissal from the plant. Doyle said the company was seeking an incentive from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to finish the work quickly and would brook no complaint from employees about safety concerns.

Printed on Thursday, October 11, 2012 as: Chemical exposure trial begins in Ore