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Lawyers filed seven class-action lawsuits in seven states on behalf of service members and civilians who say they were sickened by the open-air burn pits on U.S. military bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lawsuits, including a wrongful death suit, were filed against contractor KBR Inc., as well as its parent company, Halliburton, after a Military Times story that ran last October showed that the burn pit at Joint Base Balad, the biggest U.S. base in Iraq, burned everything from petroleum products to dioxin-releasing plastic water bottles to amputated limbs.
Two more lawsuits are expected to be filed Wednesday
More than 150 people contacted Military Times with similar sets of symptoms ranging from respiratory problems to lymphoma and leukemia. Kerry Baker, associate national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans, put out a call to all service members and veterans who believed they had been sickened by the burn pits so that he could see if DAV should push for automatic service-connected disability benefits for veterans who had been exposed, just as is done with Vietnam vets who were exposed to Agent Orange.
Baker worked with lawyer Elizabeth Burke of Burke O'Neill LLC to connect veterans who wanted to be included in a class-action lawsuit. The lawsuits, filed in Alabama, California, Georgia, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, New York, North Carolina and Wyoming, name 21 plaintiffs.
"KBR knew or should have known that operating vast open-air burn pits jeopardized the health and safety of thousands of Americans," Burke said in a statement. "KBR showed an utter disregard for the safety of the troops when they chose to use open-air burn pits and failed to use incinerators and other safer methods of waste disposal."
The Defense Department contracted out waste disposal to KBR. However, service members operate some of the burn pits at smaller bases, and military field manuals offer guidance about how to operate those burn pits, calling them a "short-term" solution in a war zone.
In an interview, Burke said that environmental health experts who looked at possible chemical exposures were astonished by how the symptoms matched up.
"These for-profit corporations callously exposed and continue to expose soldiers and others to toxic smoke, ash and fumes," the lawsuits state. "These exposures are causing a host of serious diseases, increased risk of serious diseases in the future, death and increased risk of death."
Several service members have died since returning from Iraq, and their family members believe their illnesses were caused by the burn pits.
The lawsuit accuses the defendants of negligence, battery, nuisance, emotional distress, willful and wanton conduct, negligent training and hiring, breach of duty to warn and breach of contract. In two cases, the lawyers accuse KBR of wrongful death.
The suits ask for monetary damages for physical injuries, lost wages, emotional distress, pain and suffering. It asks that KBR lose all revenue and profits it gained in the waste-disposal contract, and it also asks for legal expenses.
Baker and Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., have set up an http://www.burnpits.org">online clearinghouse for burn-pit information.
http://www.militarytimes.com/news/2008/10/military_burnpit_102708w/">* Burn pit at Balad raises health concerns
http://www.militarytimes.com/news/2008/11/military_burnpit_complaints_111308w/">* Burn pit fallout
http://www.airforcetimes.com/news/2008/11/airforce_burnpit_112608/">* Troops air complaints about burn pits
http://www.militarytimes.com/community/opinion/navy_editorial_burnpit_110308/">Pentagon must recognize burn-pit health hazards