DC Bureau, a project of the nonprofit Public Education Center, has published a stunning four-part series, “No Contractor Left Behind” on the errors by KBR and the Pentagon that allowed National Guard troops to be exposed to high levels of the carcinogen sodium dichromate while stationed at the Qarmat Ali water plant in Balad, Iraq. Adam Lichtenheld, with reporting by Byron Moore, investigates who knew what when about the orange dust that coated Qarmat Ali – and how the government failed to help soldiers who have developed cancers and other problems since being stationed there. Part I of the series introduces us to the soldiers:

Between April and September of 2003, the Indiana Guardsmen and their comrades from West Virginia and Oregon were subjected to a deadly health threat that would not be tolerated in any workplace in America.

Six years later, these once-vigorous soldiers now find themselves feeble and fraught with worry. Two have died from cancer. Another is in end-of-life hospice care. Dozens more suffer from frequent respiratory problems and chronic illnesses.

As part of a massive push to restore Iraq’s oil production following the US invasion, contracting giant KBR was tasked with rebuilding the Qarmat Ali water plant, which treated water that was injected into oil wells. National Guard troops arriving there to provide security to KBR employees found the facility coated with orange dust that swirled through the air during frequent windstorms. Soldiers began suffering from severe nosebleeds, nasal infections, and skin abrasions – but when they reported their symptoms and asked whether the orange dust might play a role, they were told it was only a “mild irritant.”

In fact, the powder was sodium dichromate, a highly concentrated compound of hexavalent chromium and a potent carcinogen. It’s sometimes injected into piping systems as an anti-corrosive, but few sites in the US use it these days because of the health risks associated with it.

As Lichtenheld details in Part II of the series, “Company records, alongside sworn testimony from former employees, show that KBR identified the presence of sodium dichromate, a known poison, at Qarmat Ali months before it took action.”

An internal KBR memo dated June 2003 shows that Iraqi oil company employees notified a KBR industrial hygienist of the presence of sodium dichromate at the plant. Former KBR safety manager Ed Blacke said he requested information on the orange powder soon after arriving there in July 2003, but was told it was a “non-issue.” He testified before the Democratic Policy Committee that he was chastised for raising concerns about co-workers’ illnesses within the company, and was forced to resign after he continued to question his superiors’ lack of action. But the company did realize something was wrong:

On August 7, KBR released a memo documenting “serious health problems at water treatment plant with a chemical called sodium dichromate,” a problem “that seems worse than initially indicated” having exposed those working at the facility “to something that may be very dangerous.” The chemical, the memo read, “could have been dumped on the ground for quite a long time.”

After KBR found that 60 percent of its workers were exhibiting symptoms, a medical team tested their blood and discovered elevated chromium levels four to 10 times higher than normal.

In response, the contractor dispatched environmental specialists to test the air and ground around Qarmat Ali for sodium dichromate. In the soil, they found “extremely high levels” of up to 16,000 parts per million – nearly three times the amount that is considered “actionable” under the Military Exposure Guideliens.

But finding evidence of a problem was not the same as publicly admitting to a problem:

In an e-mail dated September 3, 2003, Bruce Keyston, an employee in KBR’s Health, Safety and Environmental Department, wrote:

“We must be careful from a litigation standpoint how we address the chemicals. My basic premise that we cannot say sodium dichromate is a known human carcinogen still stands.”

Company attorney William Bedford, who counseled KBR personnel in the field on how to proceed at Qarmat Ali, also played down the chemical’s toxicity. “It appeared not to be something that was…an obvious carcinogen or something that had an acute exposure problem to it,” he said in his deposition.

KBR then undertook remediation activities at Qarmat Ali, and completed them on August 30, 2003. It continues to claim that it responded appropriately, although Lichtenheld notes that KBR spokeswoman Heather Browne “did not respond to questions about the three-month window between when KBR personnel were first notified of the chemical and when the company decided to stop work and remediate the site.”

It wasn’t just National Guard troops who were suffering; British soldiers and employees of KBR and the Iraqi Oil Company also had symptoms similar to what US soldiers experienced. The National Guard troops are the ones we would expect the Army to be taking care of – but, as Lichetenheld writes in Part III of the series, the Army fell far short of expectations that it would look after its own:

Weeks after KBR mitigated the danger at Qarmat Ali by paving over its chemical-laden areas, the Army began testing its soldiers for possible sodium dichromate exposure. They told Schultz and his Indiana comrades that it was merely a routine physical.  “My nose started to bleed profusely for 10 minutes,” Schultz said. “The doctor told me it was simply because of the dry air, though I never had a nosebleed from dry air like that in my life.” He remembers undergoing an array of tests, but he never got the results. “We were simply told that we flunked the physical,” he said.

Schultz and Kimberling were among the relatively small group of exposed soldiers that were actually tested by the Army. Due to constant site rotations under project RIO [Restore Iraqi Oil], by the time the Army’s medical team arrived at Qarmat Ali in October, only the Indiana unit remained. “There wasn’t a system in place in 2003 that identified where each individual soldier was every day of the operation,” said Army environmental engineer John Resta. As a result, only 137 out of the 600 potentially exposed military personnel—less than thirty percent—underwent testing for sodium dichromate poisoning.

The Army published some of its findings, stating that there “was not a significant exposure from sodium dichromate at Qarmat Ali.” Epidemiologist and former EPA official Dr. Herman Gibb testified before the Democratic Policy Committee that the testing was done too late after exposure had ended and used an insensitive blood test. He estimates that the concentrations of airborne sodium dichromate could have been 80 – 200 times OSHA’s limit. Nonetheless, the Department of Veterans Affairs has relied on the Army conclusion and denied medical benefits from exposed soldiers. Many of the soldiers who were stationed at Qarmat Ali are now too sick to work, and desperately need those benefits. Others have already died. Lichtenheld writes:

Since returning home to Pennsylvania, [former combat engineer Glen] Bootay has been hospitalized numerous times, as he wages a battle on two fronts—a disease that prevents him from holding a job and a VA that continues to deny him care, including paying for the life-saving treatment he received at Mayo. He is only 30 years old. “I believe my battle with illness would have been different if I had been told by the Army that I was exposed to sodium dichromate,” Bootay told the DPC between labored breaths. “I am fighting for my life and desperately need these [health] benefits.”

“But,” he added, “I wonder if I will live long enough to receive them.”

Bootay’s anxiety has become reality for some servicemen. Sgt. First Class David Moore, a platoon leader and 20-year veteran of the Indiana Guard, died in 2008 from a rare form of lung disease after returning from Iraq, where he made routine visits to Qarmat Ali. Another Oregon infantryman, Nick Thomas, succumbed to leukemia at the age of 21 after serving guard duty at the Basra water plant. These deaths have provided other veterans with a gloomy reminder of their possible fate.

When our soldiers have been exposed to a dangerous carcinogen in the line of duty, notified tardily – if at all – of their risks, and then denied medical benefits, we might expect Congress to step in, both to investigate how such a terrible thing could be allowed to happen and to ensure that suffering soldiers and their families get the help they need. Here, too, though, the response has been inadequate, as Lichtenheld shows in Part IV of the series.

Before they gained the majority in 2006, Congressional Democrats criticized their Republican colleagues for failing to launch sweeping probes into corruption and mismanagement by military contractors. Once in power, however, the party didn’t seem to have the time to investigate the Qarmat Ali situation or other instances – like faulty wiring at military bases – in which poor work by KBR has endangered or ended soldiers’ lives.

Senator Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has been holding hearings under the auspices of the Democratic Policy Committee, but since the DPC isn’t a standing committee it lacks subpoena power and can’t require that witnesses testify under oath. Lichtenheld reports that Dorgan has pushed for the creation of a special select senate committee, which would have subpoena power, to investigate contractor abuses. For the moment, though, Congress isn’t punishing KBR or forcing it to mend its ways – and in the meantime, the company is still being awarded new contracts.

Senators from the affected soldiers’ states are at least making some progress toward getting necessary treatment for troops exposed to sodium dichromate. Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia has been assured by Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki that soldiers who served at Qarmat Ali will receive special medical monitoring. And, Lichtenheld reports, legislation is also in the works:

In response to the incident at Qarmat Ali, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) proposed a bill calling for a registry that would track exposed veterans and qualify them for health benefits. Fellow Indiana Democrat and Rep. Baron Hill has introduced a similar measure in the House. Their legislation caught the attention of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, which held a hearing on military chemical exposures last week.

Lichtenheld notes that it took three decades for the military to start awarding health benefits to Vietnam veterans sickened after exposure to Agent Orange, so the slow response to soldiers suffering after serving at Qarmat Ali isn’t surprising. Still, it seems that our government ought to learn from past mistakes, and do the right thing for these soldiers before any more of them die.

The full “No Contractor Left Behind” series is well worth a read:
Part I: KBR, the Pentagon and the Soldiers Who Paid
Part II: KBR’s Negligence
Part III: “Just Suck It Up and Move On”
Part IV: Congress’s Powerless Probe