Is the Army covering up KBR's poisoning of U.S. soldiers?

KBR_Logo.PNGTwo Senators are questioning the conclusions of an Army investigation into the exposure of hundreds of U.S. soldiers in Iraq to hexavalent chromium, a deadly cancer-causing poison made famous by the Academy Award-nominated film "Erin Brockovich."

The soldiers -- from West Virginia, South Carolina, Oregon and Indiana -- were assigned to guard the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Basrah following the 2003 U.S. invasion. The facility, which supplies water for use in the country's oil fields, was looted following the invasion and the chemical in the form of sodium dichromate used to prevent pipe corrosion was strewn around the facility and the grounds.

The project at Qarmat Ali was overseen by private contractor KBR, which at the time was still a subsidiary of Halliburton -- a Houston-based company headed until 2001 by former Vice President Dick Cheney. The company got the job under a no-bid contract worth billions of dollars.

According to briefings the Senators' staff received from the Army, KBR knew about the contamination by June 1, 2003 at the latest. But according to a letter [pdf] sent last week to Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Army Secretary Preston Geren by Sens. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), KBR:

* didn't notify the Army Corps of Engineers until July 25;

* didn't start testing the site until Aug. 2;

* didn't begin remediation until Aug. 11; and

* didn't provide personal protection equipment or send preliminary test results to the Army until Sept. 8.

"In fact," the letter states, "Indiana Army National Guard (INARNG) personnel were not even told of the exposure until they saw KBR employees using [personal protective equipment] at the site."

The Senators also say they believe the exposure may have been more severe and widespread than reported.

"As we understand, OSHA has set a legal limit for hexavalent chromium of 0.0005 mg/m3 chromium in air averaged over an 8 hour workday," they wrote. "Though we recognize that the Army believes that the group of soldiers at greatest risk of exposure was exposed for an average of 147 hours, some were most certainly expoused to quantities much greater than 0.0005 mg/m3 before KBR remediated the site. As such, we are concerned that their exposure will make them more susceptible to negative health effects in the future."

Bayh and Dorgan, who chaired a June 2008 Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing that addressed the exposure at Qarmat Ali, asked Gates and Geren to explain how the Army could say it's "satisfied" with its oversight of KBR and the response by KBR and the Army to the exposure, given that some soldiers exposed to the deadly chemical in the spring and summer of 2003 still have not been informed by either the Army or KBR.

"It looks like conclusions were made without regard to the facts," Dorgan said. "We owe our soldiers much more than that. Given the well documented and serious failures at the site, I don't understand how the Army can claim KBR acted appropriately."

There's currently a federal arbitration complaint pending in Houston in which 10 contractors allege that KBR knowingly allowed them to be poisoned at the facility, the Houston Chronicle reported. A federal lawsuit has also been filed by the Indiana National Guardsmen, including a senior officer who is dying from cancer and believes the exposure is to blame. KBR has denied the charges.

The company has also come under fire for allegedly shoddy work that led to the electrocution deaths of 13 U.S. soldiers, as well as inflating prices for imported gasoline, poor treatment of migrant workers, employees' alleged involvement in rapes of women workers and involvement in human trafficking.