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Lawsuit on troop exposure to toxin goes to jury

Oct. 31, 2012 - 06:16PM   |   Last Updated: Oct. 31, 2012 - 06:16PM  |  
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PORTLAND, Ore. — Jurors will decide whether an Iraq war contractor is responsible for respiratory ailments and the fear of future illness that Oregon National Guard soldiers blame on a carcinogen present at a water plant they were tasked to defend. The contractor says the substance was in concentrations so small it was harmless.

Attorneys for 12 Oregon National Guardsmen focused on the months of April, May and June 2003, alleging Kellogg, Brown and Root knew about the presence of sodium dichromate — which contains the carcinogen hexavalent chromium — and took no action, laying the responsibility for informing the soldiers on the U.S. Army.

"If you start with a big lie, you've got to keep it going," said the soldier's attorney, Mike Doyle, in closing arguments on Wednesday.

Doyle asked for a minimum of $1 million in damages for each soldier.

KBR attorney Geoffrey Harrison said the company disclosed the risk to the soldiers.

"If KBR wanted to keep it secret, they would have," Harrison said. "If our motive were evil-minded, evidence should show that KBR concealed the risk."

KBR tried to warn the U.S. Army about the dangers of sodium dichromate, Harrison said, but didn't go to the soldiers themselves because that wasn't the proper channel of communication.

"If they had full and open communication with everybody, why is their own engineer writing to Houston saying we need to tell our people they're around something dangerous," Doyle said. "It's all talk, talk, talk."

The suit dates to pre-war Iraq, when the U.S. Army feared then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein would react to an invasion by setting his own oil fields ablaze, as he had done in Kuwait after the Gulf War.

Seeking to head off Hussein, in late 2002 the Army contracted KBR and tasked them with assessing and repairing Iraqi oilfield installations. One of the most central — and critical to a continued supply of oil from the Gulf — was called Qarmat Ali.

Qarmat Ali operated as a water treatment plant, injecting heavier, treated water into the ground to force oil to rise through wells to the surface. One of the chemicals Iraqi workers had been using was sodium dichromate, a substance long restricted in the U.S. over environmental and health concerns, especially concerning hexavalent chromium.

The soldiers returned to the U.S. suffering from myriad respiratory problems, migraines and lung issues. They sued KBR in June 2009. The Oregon soldiers were joined by Guardsmen from Indiana and West Virginia, some of whom are also involved in suits against KBR.

Harrison asked jurors to drop four of the 12 soldiers from the suit, saying they acknowledged in various forms their knowledge of the risk from sodium dichromate long before they filed suit and waited too long to sue.

A jury of six men and six women will decide whether the company is culpable for the soldiers' exposure to hexavalent chromium, and whether that exposure led to their ongoing respiratory illnesses. The soldiers will also try to show that the fear of future illnesses is causing them to suffer emotional distress.

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