Larry Roberta’s every breath is a painful reminder of his time in Iraq. He can’t walk a block without gasping for air. His chest hurts, his migraines sometimes persist for days, and he needs pills to help him sleep.
James Gentry came home with rashes, ear trouble and shortness of breath. Later, he developed lung cancer.
David Moore’s postwar life turned into a harrowing medical mystery: Nosebleeds and labored breathing made it impossible to work, much less speak. He died last year of lung disease at age 42.
What these three men had in common is they were National Guard soldiers on the same stretch of wind-swept desert in Iraq during the early months of the war in 2003.
These and hundreds of other Guard members from Indiana, Oregon and West Virginia were protecting workers hired by a subsidiary of contractor KBR Inc. to rebuild an Iraqi water treatment plant. The area, as it turned out, was contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a potent, sometimes deadly chemical linked to cancer and other devastating diseases.
No one disputes that. But that’s where the agreement ends.
Among the issues now rippling from the courthouse to Capitol Hill are whether the chemical made people sick, when KBR knew it was there, and how the company responded. The debate has raised broader questions about private contractors and health risks in war zones.
Questions, says Sen. Evan Bayh, such as: “How should we treat exposure to potentially hazardous chemicals as a threat to our soldiers? How seriously should that threat be taken? What is the role of private contractors? What about the potential conflict between their profit motives and taking all steps necessary to protect our soldiers?
“This case,” said the Indiana Democrat, “has brought to light the need for systemic reform.”
Civilians also affected
Dozens of National Guard veterans have sued KBR and two subsidiaries, accusing them of minimizing and concealing the chemical’s dangers, then downplaying nosebleeds and breathing problems as nothing more than sand allergies or a reaction to desert air.
Ten civilians hired by a KBR subsidiary made similar claims in an arbitration resolved privately in June.
Recently filed lawsuits in several states against KBR and Halliburton Co. – KBR’s parent company until 2007 – assert that open-air pits used to burn refuse in Iraq and Afghanistan caused illnesses and death.
The case stems from the chaotic start of the war in 2003 when a KBR subsidiary was hired to restart the treatment plant. The Iraqis had used hexavalent chromium to prevent pipe corrosion at the plant, which produced industrial water used in oil production.
Hexavalent chromium is the same chemical linked to poisonings in California in a case made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.” It can cause severe liver and kidney damage, and studies have linked it to leukemia as well as bone, stomach and other cancers, according to an expert who provided a deposition for the civilian workers.
The chemical “is one of the most potent carcinogens known to man,” declared Max Costa, chairman of New York University’s Department of Environmental Medicine.
KBR, however, says studies show only that industrial workers exposed to the chemical for more than two years have an increased risk of cancer; in this case, soldiers were at the plant just days or months.
The company also notes air quality studies concluded the Indiana Guard soldiers were not exposed to high levels of hexavalent chromium. But Costa says those tests were done when the wind was not blowing.
Both soldiers and former workers say there were days when strong gusts kicked up ripped-open bags of the chemical, creating a yellow-orange haze that coated everything from their hair to their boots.
“I was spitting blood, and I was not the only one doing that,” recalls Danny Langford, who worked for the KBR subsidiary. “The wind was blowing 30, 40 miles an hour. … I pulled my shirt over my nose and there would be blood on it.”
Roberta, a 44-year-old former Oregon National Guard member, remembers 137-degree heat, and dust everywhere. He sat on a bag of the chemical, unaware it was dangerous.
Roberta had coughing spells and agonizing chest pains, he said, that “went all the way through my back. … Every day I went there, I had something weird going on.”
Ed Blacke, hired as plant health, safety and environmental coordinator, said he became worried after workers started having breathing problems and a former colleague sent him an internal KBR memo outlining the chemical’s dangers. Blacke said he complained, was labeled a troublemaker and resigned under pressure.
“Normally when you take over a job, you have a briefing – this is what’s out there, here’s what you need for protective equipment,” said Blacke, who testified at a Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing last year. “There was nothing, nothing at all.”
KBR defends itself
Blacke and Langford were among those whose civil claims were resolved in arbitration.
Russell Kimberling, who had severe sinus troubles that forced his medical evacuation to Germany and who later saw KBR staff wearing chemical gear, is among nearly 50 current or former Guard members – most from Indiana – who’ve sued.
Mike Doyle, a Houston lawyer representing the soldiers and civilians, maintains KBR knew as early as May 2003 the chemical was there but didn’t close the site until that September.
The lawsuit cites minutes of an August 2003 KBR meeting that mentions “serious health problems at the water treatment plant” and notes “almost 60 percent of the people now exhibit the symptoms.”
KBR chairman William P. Utt said the company has been unfairly targeted for its military work.
“People think, ‘There’s an opportunity here in Iraq, let’s paint it on KBR, then we’ll worry about making the facts precise or correct later,’ ” he said.
As for the water plant, KBR says once it learned of the chemical, it took precautions to protect workers, notified the Army Corps of Engineers and led the cleanup. It says the corps had previously deemed the area safe.
KBR also points to Army tests of Indiana Guard soldiers that showed no medical problems that could be linked to exposure, as well as a military board review that found it unlikely anyone would suffer long-term medical consequences.
But Bayh and Doyle say those tests were done too late to be valid and note that soil tests were taken after the contaminated area was covered.
The Indiana, West Virginia and Oregon National Guards have sent hundreds of letters to soldiers notifying them of possible contamination and urging them to seek medical attention.
Bayh has introduced a bill calling for a medical registry that would require the Department of Defense to notify all military members of exposure to potential toxins and ensure their medical care. A similar measure that only mandates notification was approved Thursday in the U.S. House as an amendment to the defense authorization bill.
All this comes too late for 1st Sgt. David Moore.
When he returned from Iraq, his persistent cough escalated into breathing problems, nosebleeds and boil-like rashes, recalls his brother, Steve.
Even when doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong, Moore didn’t give up, Steve Moore said.
“He said, ‘They’ll figure it out, they’ll figure it out.’ He thought that until the last time I talked to him.”
David Moore died in February 2008. The cause was lung disease. His death was ruled service related. His brother believes it was hexavalent chromium.
Roberta needed stomach surgery after his return. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress, mood swings, nose polyps, chest pains and debilitating migraines.
“I have 100 percent disability,” he said. “I’ve got a long laundry list of things that happened to me while I was there. If you add it all up, I’d be almost 200 percent disabled.”
Kimberling, a former Indiana National Guard captain, struggles as well.
The father of two said he hasn’t been able to get life insurance because his possible exposure is mentioned on medical records.
Sometimes, he said, it’s hard to separate his ailments – sinus problems and joint pains – from his fears.
“I feel like I’m a 38-year-old in a 60-year-old’s body,” he said. … “I’m not sure if it’s the anxiety of finding out about it or not. I kind of know and feel it’s just a matter of time before it catches up with me.”