Sustained Outrage

KBR’s secret deal with the Pentagon

I haven’t written anything about sodium dichromate in a while, in large part because it hasn’t been in the news in West Virginia very much since U.S. District Judge Frederick Stamp dismissed two lawsuits filed by West Virginia National Guardsmen against KBR in August, ruling that he lacked jurisdiction to preside over the cases.

A brief refresher: The guardsmen alleged that KBR, a former Halliburton subsidiary, negligently exposed them and other soldiers from Oregon and Indiana to the highly carcinogenic chemical as they provided security for civilian contractors at the Qarmat Ali water plant in 2003. On its part, KBR has maintained that it was not responsible for the presence of the chemical at the facility, and that American and British soldiers and contractors were not exposed to dangerous levels of the chemical, according to tests performed by the military and KBR. (You can read previous posts here, here, here and here.)

This week, The Oregonian published this story about how members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation have proposed legislation intended to keep the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with contractors — which stay hidden as the terms of the contract are classified — which indemnify the contractor and force taxpayers to pay for any damages.

Oregon Democrats on Wednesday moved to stop the Pentagon from cutting secret deals with war contractors and to keep taxpayers from bailing out negligent contractors.

U.S. Reps. Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader, and Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, introduced a bill in both houses to boost Congressional oversight of defense contracts worth more than $1 million, revoke immunity for harm caused by a contractor’s misconduct, and limit immunity in future agreements.

The legislation is the strongest response yet to an Oregon lawsuit against Kellogg, Brown and Root, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. Twenty six Oregon Army National Guard veterans have sued KBR, saying managers downplayed or dismissed their exposure to a cancer-causing chemical early in the Iraq war. During depositions in U.S. District Court in Portland, a KBR attorney revealed he’d secured a secret agreement that requires taxpayers — not KBR — to pay for any death, injury or property damage during the Restore Iraqi Oil contract.

“We’re trying to come up with a ‘Never again’ policy,” Wyden said. “The private contractor who takes irresponsible risks with our soldiers is going to have to pay a price.”

(My emphasis.) So even if they are found legally responsible for the exposure of hundreds of soldiers and civilians to a highly toxic chemical, KBR won’t have to pay for it, taxpayers will. Because they cut a secret deal with the Pentagon. Julie Sullivan’s article continues:

Last week, Blumenauer redoubled his pressure on KBR. In a Sept. 23 letter, he again asked the Defense Department to declassify the entire KBR contract. And, he asked Defense Secretary Robert Gates to list any contractors granted similar immunity. Earlier this summer, the Army insisted KBR’s agreement was unique. But Blumenauer said he has since learned some contractors may have similar protection under the 2003 Defense Appropriations Act or with other branches of the service.

“No company that has done wrong can be allowed to hide behind the government,” Blumenauer wrote. “No government agency can be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy.”

Blumenauer also released a research report of allegations against KBR and was troubled by the apparent lack of accountability.

He said he was responding to the plight of the Oregon soldiers who suffer breathing, skin and stomach problems from hexavalent chromium exposure. “For me, it’s keeping faith with the more than two dozen people whose lives were turned upside down.”

In 2003 before the invasion of Iraq, the Army Corps of Engineers signed a no-bid contract with KBR to restore oil production after combat ended. A key site was a Soviet-built plant at Qarmat Ali where water from the Tigris River was injected to drive oil in nearby fields to the surface. The water was treated with sodium dichromate, a rust fighter that contains hexavalent chromium, a well-documented carcinogen.

The Inspector General reported Sept. 17 that 977 men and women from Oregon, Indiana, West Virginia and South Carolina National Guard units and the Corps of Engineers served at the plant. Among them were 277 Oregon Guard between late April and July 2003.

But the troops didn’t know piles of fine orange powder that coated their uniforms was dangerous until 2008, when KBR employees testified of their own health problems at Senate hearings on contractor waste, fraud and abuse.

You can read more about the proposed legislation here, and you can join me in following the Oregonian’s coverage of the sodium dichromate issue here.