APNewsBreak: Complaint says KBR knew of Iraq toxin

April 4, 2012 - 4:05 PM
Toxic Legacy of War

File - In this May 13, 2009 file photo, sickened Iraq veteran Larry Roberta covers his face while testifying before the House Rules Committee at the Oregon Capitol in Salem, Ore., about his exposure to to a chemical called sodium dichromate, which contains a potentially cancer-causing substance. A military contractor knew an Iraqi water treatment plant's lax environmental standards let a toxic chemical contaminate the area, but never disclosed it to Oregon National Guard soldiers who were sickened, the soldiers said in a complaint filed Wednesday, April 4, 2012. The complaint in U.S. District Court in Oregon alleges Kellogg, Brown and Root knew about the presence of sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant months before the date they originally gave in testimony and depositions. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A document uncovered by attorneys for soldiers sickened at an Iraqi water treatment plant shows a military contractor knew a deadly toxin was being stockpiled and used in massive quantities at the facility, despite the contractor's repeated denials that it had knowledge of the toxin's presence until soldiers fell ill.

The document, an environmental assessment that Kellogg, Brown and Root completed for the U.S. government before the invasion of Iraq, was finalized in January 2003 — a full five months before the company said it had found evidence of the toxic material, sodium dichromate.

The documents show KBR knew Iraqis ordered 8 million pounds of sodium dichromate to keep pipes from corroding, and that the company expected lax environmental maintenance and "lamentable" conditions.

Phone messages and emails left Wednesday for KBR were not immediately returned.

Sodium dichromate is an anticorrosive compound that can cause skin and breathing problems and cancer.

The Oregon National Guard soldiers, suffering from myriad respiratory problems, migraines and lung issues, sued KBR in June 2009, seeking economic damages they say they'll determine at trial.

A complaint in the lawsuit first obtained by The Associated Press and filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Oregon alleges KBR knew about the presence of sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant months before the date they originally gave in testimony and depositions.

U.S. forces reached the water treatment plant in late March or early April 2003. Three KBR executives deposed by the soldiers' attorneys in 2010 said they couldn't recall information about events in March, April and May 2003, including whether the toxic material was cleaned up before soldiers got there.

"It's a black hole for me," said KBR manager Charles Edward Johnson. "I don't remember."

The company acknowledged the presence of sodium dichromate in July 2003.

The soldiers say they only learned of the alleged misrepresentation in late February, after a Department of Defense inspector general investigation directed them to a 2002 KBR assessment of the plant.

Attorneys for the soldiers called the company's earlier explanation "deliberate, calculated concealment," according to the complaint. Guard soldiers from Oregon, Indiana and West Virginia who provided security at the Qarmat Ali water plant are involved in suits against KBR.

The U.S. Defense Department's inspector general issued a report in late September that faults KBR for failing to comply with safety and health standards at the plant and not acting as quickly as it could have to protect soldiers and civilians from exposure. Nearly 1,000 Army soldiers and civilian employees being exposed to sodium dichromate over five months.

The motion issued Wednesday requests monetary damages, or forcing KBR to identify everyone who knew of the assessment and allow lawyers to depose them.

The attorneys found the assessment in late February. Before filing the motion on Wednesday, they conducted a deposition with John Weatherly, the lead contractor liaison with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

He was asked by the soldiers' attorneys how clear it was, given the newly-revealed assessment, that KBR knew of the chemicals at the latest by January 2003.

"From the dates on the documents," he said, "it should be obvious."

__

Reach reporter Nigel Duara at http://www.twitter.com/nigelduara