By Rich Gardella and Lisa Myers
Hundreds of National Guardsmen potentially exposed to toxic chemical at Iraq water treatment plant in 2003
Throughout 2003, after the combat phase of the Iraq War had ended, the U.S. military and defense contractors raced to try and fix Iraq's infrastructure.
Working in a war zone obviously presents unexpected challenges and dangers far beyond the usual ones at industrial worksites. But this is the story of why some Army National Guardsmen are suing defense contractor KBR because of alleged exposures to a toxic chemical at one such industrial worksite in Iraq.
When specialist Larry Roberta of the Oregon Army National Guard went to Iraq in 2003, he expected sandstorms, physical hardship, perhaps even combat. What he didn't expect was the orange dust he encountered, all over the place, at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant, near Basra in southern Iraq.
"You could taste stuff in the air," Roberta recalled. "It had a really strange metallic taste."
Roberta's unit and other Army National Guard units were at the plant during the spring and summer of 2003, in the months after the U.S. invasion that March. Their mission was to provide security for workers repairing the plant. It supplied water to Iraqi oil fields, and was an important part of the U.S. mission to get Iraq's oil flowing again. The workers were repairing the plant for defense contractor Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR).
Roberta and other Guardsmen and former KBR employees told NBC News that the orange dust was throughout the plant and the grounds, and sometimes would permeate the air during when the desert winds blew.
"It blew up in my face and on my chicken patty, and my mouth and stuff like that," Roberta said. "I didn't really think a whole lot of it other than it tasted really bad and made me throw up and burn."
Capt. Russell Kimberling of the Indiana Army National Guard told us he asked KBR officials what the dust was.
"What we got from them was, 'It's a mild irritant,'" Kimberling said.
But the dust actually was a highly toxic chemical called sodium dichromate, which scientists have found can cause lung cancer in humans.
It had been used by Iraqi workers prior to the war to prevent corrosion in the pipes at the plant. There were hundreds of bags at the chemical at the plant, some of them clearly labeled.
The mission's official military name was Task Force RIO ("Restoration of Iraqi Oil"). KBR got the contract.
Six years later, some of the Guardsmen assigned to provide security for Task Force RIO at the plant are dead, dying or suffering from serious health problems--including rashes, perforated septums and lung disease. One of the foremost experts in sodium dichromate, Dr. Herman Gibb, says the guardsmen's symptoms are consistent with "significant exposure" to the chemical.
KBR argues that the company is not to blame. The company says it told the Army about the dangerous chemical as soon as it was identified at the plant. That, the company says, was on July 25, 2003.
But, internal KBR documents contradict that claim, and indicate that the company became aware of the chemical at the site two months earlier.
One internal KBR document notes that "an environmental technician identified the chemical in May." The document's author was a KBR manager who oversaw health and safety for the Qarmat Ali project.
Another KBR document warns not only that the chemical is present at the plant but also that some areas are "potentially contaminated" with it. The author of that memo, a KBR health and safety employee, suggests testing and cleanup. That document is dated June 21, 2003. That's more than one month before KBR alerted the Army, and more than two months before the Guardsmen became aware of the danger.
Several Guardsmen recall that it wasn't until late August that they learned of the hazard, and then only because they saw KBR workers wearing white chemical suits.
"They were in full protective chemical gear," Russell Kimberling told us. "You know, from head to toe. I kind of looked at one of my men and just said, 'This can't be good, can it?'"
Although KBR did remediation work in mid-August, it wasn't until several weeks after that, on September 8, 2003, that KBR shut down the Qarmat Ali plant and did a more extensive cleanup - "out of abundance of caution," it explained in a statement to NBC News. The plant remained closed until mid-October.
In all, during 2003, more than 700 soldiers passed through the Qarmat Ali plant, mostly Guard units from Indiana, Oregon, South Carolina and West Virginia. Some of these Guardsmen say they began experiencing physical symptoms - headaches, bloody noses, sinus and respiratory problems - soon after arriving at the plant in the summer of 2003.
Larry Roberta's medical records confirm he reported breathing problems and chest pains during a visit to a medic that July. The military evacuated Russ Kimberling from the site that summer so a severe sinus infection in his nasal cavity could heal.
Since then, other soldiers who served at Qarmat Ali have experienced serious illnesses. Some have died. First Sgt. David Moore of the Indiana Army National Guard died of lung disease in 2008 at age 42. The commander of Kimberling's Indiana Army National Guard Unity, Lt. Col. James Gentry, died of a rare lung cancer of the day before Thanksgiving. He had claimed to be a lifelong non-smoker.
Roberta, a former police officer who climbed Mt. Sinai before he went to Iraq, now struggles to catch his breath when he walks. He has serious stomach and liver issues, migraines and acute respiratory problems, including reactive airway disorder.
"You almost feel like you're drowning," Roberta said, after gasping for breath during a coughing fit captured on video by an NBC cameraman. "You want to breathe, but you just can't."
Roberta, Kimberling, Gentry and Moore's family are part of a lawsuit by Army Guardsmen against KBR, charging that the company knowingly endangered lives by not informing them of the dangers. The Guardsmen's law firm, Doyle Raizner of Houston, Texas, has been gathering testimony and documents in the case.
KBR strongly denies wrongdoing. The company acknowledges that sodium dichromate was present at the plant, and had contaminated parts of it. But KBR claims it "acted appropriately and on a timely basis" as information about the chemical at the plant became known. In statements to NBC News, KBR also claims that it was the Army's reponsibility to ensure the site was free of environmental hazards.
What's more, KBR insists that there is no evidence proving that soldiers suffered illnesses or injuries because of exposure to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali plant.
Former KBR employees previously filed their own complaint against the company, making similar allegations. An arbitrator denied the employees' claims for damages, arguing that the company was not liable under the provisions of the Defense Base Act, a federal workers compensation law applying to persons working on U.S. military bases outside the U.S. Without discussion, the arbitrator states that "claimants did not present sufficient proof of an injury compensable under Texas law," where KBR is based.
We consulted Dr. Herman Gibb, one of the foremost experts on sodium dichromate exposure. Gibb, an epidemiologist, spent 29 years at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, much of that time at the National Center for Environmental Assessment. He is the lead author of a 2000 study of the relationship between lung cancer and sodium dichromate exposure. (That study collected data on the exposures of 2,101 workers at a Baltimore factory who were exposed to sodium dichromate between 1950 and 1974.)
In an NBC News interview, we asked Dr. Gibb about KBR's statement.
Lisa Myers: KBR says there is simply no evidence that soldiers were harmed by exposure to this chemical. Do you agree with that statement?
Dr. Herman Gibb: I don't see how you can say there's no evidence. I mean... they experienced symptoms that are consistent with sodium dichromate exposure. The exposure must have been fairly significant to be associated with these symptoms.
In claiming no proof of harm to soldiers, KBR specifically points to red blood cell blood tests conducted by the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventative Medicine (CHPPM). KBR told us the Army's CHPPM had concluded that "no soldier encountered a significant inhalation exposure while guarding the facility."
But NBC's review of the Army's report showed that what the Center actually reported was that the blood tests "appear to show that there was not a significant inhalation exposure," and that the Army's medical team "at the time felt that long-term health effects were very unlikely from the exposure as understood."
And Dr. Gibb told NBC that the red blood cell tests were too insensitive, and conducted too long after exposure, to be conclusive.
"The test wouldn't have been very reliable... taken so long after exposure ended," he said. "It would be like giving a breathalyzer test to somebody three days after they'd been driving erratically."
KBR also claims that most air and soil sample tests indicate that "there was no danger from airborne contamination of the plant." Dr. Gibb noted that KBR had admitted that the Army's and KBR's air and soil and blood tests occurred after KBR had remediated the site.
Since our interview, Dr. Gibb has been hired by lawyers representing the Guardsmen to review material for their case.
KBR provided NBC News an executive summary of a report it claims counters Dr. Gibb's testimony, prepared as part of KBR's response to the previous claim by former KBR employees.
The trial for the Guardsmen's case against KBR likely won't begin until sometime next year.
Meanwhile, Roberta struggles just to get through each day.
"If KBR did know about this, before we were there," said Roberta, "it should have been rectified."
"They said it was a mild irritant," Kimberling recalled. "That's what I told my soldiers. And suck it up and drive on with the mission. Don't whine about it. You know, 'We're here, let's do our job and let's go home.' That's what we did."
What upsets some of the Guardsmen most of all is that after serving their country faithfully, they believe the Army and KBR let them down by not fully acknowledging or investigating their exposure to the toxic chemical or their serious health problems. Some suffered for years and only recently have a possible explanation why.
In the last few months, the U.S. government finally has begun to acknowledge their predicament.
The Defense Department's Inspector General has launched an investigation. That was the result of a formal request from seven Democratic senators, including Sen. Byron Dorgan, chairman of the Democratic Policy Committee, which has been investigating this matter for more than a year. (The DPC held two hearings on the topic, one in 2008 and one this year.)
In September and October, following a hearing by the Senate's Veterans Affairs Committee, the Secretary of the Army, Pete Geren, and the Secretary of the Veterans Affairs Department, Gen. Eric Shinseki, sent letters to Sen. Dorgan describing new efforts to contact and examine the 700+ soldiers who potentially were exposed to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali plant.
All these efforts now should help exposed soldiers like Larry Roberta receive medical care, and perhaps eventually yield more substantive answers about how many were exposed to the toxic chemical, how many have health problems because of it, and why this happened at all.
Editor's note: We thank our readers who noticed several typographical errors in this article. The errors were not part of the original text of the article. We are investigating the circumstances of how changes to the text occurred, creating these errors.