W. Va. soldiers sue firm for chemical exposure in Iraq
Former West Virginia National Guardsman Russell Powell holds a photo of him on patrol near a water treatment plant in Basrah, Iraq, in 2003. where he was likely exposed to hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical.
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MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. -- Russell Powell wondered for years after he returned from Iraq why he couldn't run even short distances without wheezing.
Following his yearlong tour of duty that ended in 2004, he coached his son's Little League team, but had to stop because it exhausted him.
The 34-year-old, who was able to run two miles in 9:44 before he went to Iraq in 2003, said now he is lucky to finish in 20 minutes.
He 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. Since he started his new job as a corrections officer for a West Virginia prison earlier this year, he's had to use several sick days and vacation days to visit doctors.
In February, Mr. Powell, who was a sergeant in the 1092d Engineer Battalion, received a letter from the state surgeon of the West Virginia Army National Guard. He thinks it explains why he's been out of breath and nauseous, suffering from rashes and sick to his stomach for the last five years. And he thinks it 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 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.
Hexavalent chromium was the subject of the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," which followed the true story of people 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.
Mr. Powell said that before he received the letter, he had not known he might have been exposed to the chemical during the three months he worked at the plant.
"Maybe this is the reason why I'm sick," he thought. Doctors who were shown the letter tested Mr. Powell for cancer but have found none.
On June 25, Mr. Powell and six other members of his company in the 1092d, sued 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 argues that the guardsmen are entitled to payment or reimbursement for all medical expenses resulting from sodium dichromate exposure.
At a June 2008 Senate Democratic Policy Committee hearing, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., said a United Nations assessment of the site before KBR's arrival found sodium dichromate, and that internal KBR reports show 60 percent of its employees experienced symptoms of exposure.
KBR civilian employees reached a settlement with the company in arbitration in June. A lawsuit on behalf of mostly Indiana National Guardsmen is pending, in addition to the new West Virginia suit.
Dr. Max Costa, an expert on the effects of hexavalent chromium and chairman of the New York University Medical School Department of Environmental Medicine, said exposure to 30 to 40 micrograms of hexavalent chromium per cubic meter has been shown to cause more than a 50 percent increase in cancers in exposed humans, according to the West Virginia guardsmen's lawsuit.
"They probably got a pretty good dose," if they were experiencing nose bleeds while at the facility, indicating that the levels were higher than levels considered dangerous, said Dr. Aaron Barchowsky, an associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health.
Dr. Barchowsky, who is well-versed in chromium toxicology, said depending on the dose encountered, the soldiers could have long-term chronic problems affecting their lungs, such as emphysema. The chemical directly damages cellular DNA; therefore, it could increase the risk of cancer, he said.
"We know what we're fighting against," Mr. Powell said. "You are talking a billion-dollar contractor, and young soldiers don't have that kind of education. None of us have sued anybody in our lives, so we don't know. We're just doing the best we can."
Mr. Powell, originally from Steubenville, Ohio, joined the military after he graduated from high school in 1994. He had planned to attend college, and he'd received offers of athletic scholarships from Wheeling Jesuit, West Virginia University and Ohio State University, but decided to join the military, like his father and two brothers.
He became an Army medic, serving first as a paratrooper medic then as a flight medic. The Army sent him to Fort Bragg, N.C., then Panama, then back to Fort Bragg.
In 2000, Mr. Powell decided to leave active duty. He and his wife were expecting their first child, and he didn't want to be away from them. But after Sept. 11, 2001, the Army returned him to active duty, so he joined the 1092d out of Moundsville.
Two years later, the United States went to war in Iraq. In March 2003, Mr. Powell's battalion flew to Kuwait, and later that month, was assigned to provide security for KBR employees at the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Facility.
Kellogg, Brown & Root Services Inc., or KBR, 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. Before the Americans arrived, then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had ordered the destruction of the plant, and when Mr. Powell arrived there in March 2003, he said "bags of orange and yellow stuff" lay throughout the plant and surrounding area.
The bags, Mr. Powell would learn five years later, contained sodium dichromate, which the Iraqis had used to prevent the water pipes from corroding, and later, in an effort to destroy the plant.
Mr. Powell, who was the head medic of his battalion while in Iraq, said he and his partners went to the plant during the day, wearing, at most, their flak jackets. At the facility, they sat in the dirt to eat their meals, while dust swirled around them.
Nearly as soon as they arrived, people became sick -- not just the soldiers, but also the KBR employees. First, Mr. Powell said, their noses would bleed and their skin would feel raw. They developed sore throats and skin sores and began to cough up blood.
When asked, KBR told soldiers it must be allergies or a reaction to the sand.
In June 2003, Mr. Powell became very ill. A Navy doctor gave him Motrin, which didn't help. On one occasion, Mr. Powell went to a bomb shelter to give himself medication intravenously.
His men found him there unconscious. When he regained consciousness, he was in a Kuwaiti hospital. His lips were black and his face was red; both were blistered.
Soon afterward, the Guardsmen trained members of an Indiana National Guard unit to replace them as security providers for KBR.
The bloody noses and sores subsided after Mr. Powell left Qarmat Ali in June 2003, but his nausea, stomach pain and breathing difficulties continued after he left Iraq in April 2004. Mr. Powell remained in the Army until 2008, when he was discharged for medical reasons.
The letter Mr. Powell received in February was sent to about 125 other members of the West Virginia National Guard who may have been exposed to sodium dichromate.
KBR discovered the chemical at the plant in summer 2003, said Col. William Farthing, the Army's spokesman on the Qamar Ali issue. By August, they cleaned up the site, covering the entire area with asphalt, then 3 inches of gravel. The streets were washed, and subsequent air monitoring indicated reduced levels of the chemical.
An Army team sent to the site in September 2003 found that the soldiers' level of exposure to sodium dichromate was no higher than would be expected in the average U.S. citizen. They tested soldiers in the Indiana National Guard unit, but not the West Virginia soldiers, who were no longer at the plant.
After former KBR employees testified about the contamination before the U.S. Senate in 2008, the Army looked again at the incident. Army officials began contacting all the soldiers who may have been exposed, including West Virginia, Indiana, Oregon and South Carolina National Guardsmen.
"We don't expect there to be any adverse outcome in the future because of the low amount of chemical at the site and the short time they were there, but just in case we want to take care of these soldiers," Col. Farthing said.
A spokeswoman for KBR said the company "did not knowingly harm troops," and is committed to the safety and security of all its employees.
"The company appropriately notified the Army Corps of Engineers of the existence of the substance on the site, and the Corps of Engineers concluded that KBR's efforts to remediate the situation were effective," a statement said.
Mr. Powell disputes that.
"They had doctors saying back in May  that it was there; they just didn't tell us," he said. "If you've got doctors saying it was there, and they're not telling us, something's wrong. They're thinking about that billion-dollar contract, not the soldier, and not the KBR employees themselves."
First Published July 12, 2009 12:00 am