When Russell Powell returned from Iraq, he began to have a number of health-related issues. Following his year-long tour of duty that ended in 2004, he returned home to pick up his life and do all of the things he enjoyed doing before going to Iraq. Mr. Powell was discharged from the West Virginia Army National Guard for medical reasons at the end of 2008 because he was unable to meet physical requirements. He started a new job as a corrections officer for a West Virginia prison earlier this year, but his medical problems that came with him from Iraq have continued.
In February, Mr. Powell, who had been a sergeant in the 1092d Engineer Battalion, received a most significant letter from the state surgeon of the West Virginia Army National Guard. This letter explained why Mr. Powell had been out of breath and nauseous, suffering from rashes and sick to his stomach for the last five years. It also explains why, for three months in Iraq, he constantly coughed up blood, had frequent bloody noses and, at one point, passed out, waking up in a hospital with blackened lips and a blistered face. The letter said Mr. Powell and other soldiers in his unit may have been exposed to sodium dichromate, an industrial chemical, which had been used to prevent the corrosion of pipes at a water treatment facility near Basrah, Iraq.
The chemical contains hexavalent chromium, which can cause sores inside the nose and on the skin, general skin irritation, nose bleeding, wheezing, coughing and pain in the chest when breathing, fever, nausea and upset stomach. It also has been linked to cancer. As you may recall, Hexavalent chromium was the subject of the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, which followed the true story of folks in a California town who developed health problems following exposure to the chemical. They sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co., settling in 1996 for $333 million.
Before Mr. Powell received his letter, he did not realize he had been exposed to the chemical during the three months he worked at the plant in Iraq. Doctors who were shown the letter tested Mr. Powell for cancer and fortunately the tests results were negative. On June 25th, Mr. Powell and six other members of his company in the 1092d, filed suit against KBR, the firm in charge of rebuilding the water treatment facility. The lawsuit alleges that KBR managers knew about the site contamination and the threat it posed, and “disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger” to West Virginia National Guardsmen. It alleges that the Guardsmen are entitled to payment or reimbursement for all medical expenses resulting from exposure to the deadly chemical.
Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc., describes itself on its Web site as the U.S. Army’s largest contractor and a “technology-driven engineering, procurement and construction company.” The Army gave KBR a contract to rebuild the wrecked water treatment facility plant, which pumps water into the ground to force oil out. When the plant was demolished, bags that contained sodium dichromate were left throughout the plant and surrounding area.
A United Nations assessment of the plant site before KBR’s arrival found sodium dichromate. Also, internal KBR reports revealed that 60% of its employees experienced symptoms of exposure. Interestingly, in June, while in arbitration, KBR civilian employees reached a settlement with the company. Another lawsuit on behalf of mostly Indiana National Guardsmen against KBR is still pending.
KBR – the politically-connected government contractor, which enjoyed very close ties to the Bush Administration and specifically to Dick Cheney – must have known about the health hazards created by the sodium dichromate. Even after its own employees and military personnel began getting sick, KBR covered up the known problem.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
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