Sodium dichromate is an orange-yellowish substance containing hexavalent chromium, an anti-corrosion chemical. To Lt. Col. James Gentry of the Indiana National Guard, who was stationed at the Qarmat Ali water treatment center in Iraq just after the 2003 U.S. invasion, it was “just different-colored sand.” In their first few months at the base, soldiers were told by KBR contractors running the facility the substance was no worse than a mild irritant.
Gentry was one of approximately 830 service members, including active-duty soldiers and members of the National Guard and reserve units from Indiana, South Carolina, West Virginia and Oregon, assigned to secure the water treatment plant, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Sodium dichromate is not a mild irritant. It is an extreme carcinogen. In November 2009, at age 52, Gentry died of cancer. The VA affirmed two months later that his death was service-related.
In November, a jury found KBR, the military’s largest contractor, guilty of negligence in the poisoning of a dozen soldiers, and ordered the company to pay $85 million in damages. Jurors found KBR knew both of the presence and toxicity of the chemical. Other lawsuits against KBR are pending.
KBR, however, says taxpayers should be on the hook for the verdict, as well as more than $15 million the company has spent in its failed legal defense, according to court documents and attorneys involved with the case.
KBR’s contract with the U.S. to rebuild Iraq’s oil infrastructure after the 2003 invasion includes an indemnity agreement protecting the company from legal liability, KBR claims in court filings. That agreement, KBR insists, means the federal government must pay the company’s legal expenses plus the verdict won by 12 members of the Oregon National Guard who were exposed to the toxin at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant.
The military disagrees. A U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracting officer told KBR in November 2011 that litigation costs “are not covered by the indemnity agreement.”
The public doesn’t know what the indemnity agreement actually says because the military considers it classified. Until recently, the veterans exposed to the toxin couldn’t know either, nor could attorneys at the Department of Justice, who were left battling the contract in the dark, according to a source there.
Michael Doyle, a Houston-based lawyer who helped the successful suit against KBR, told The Huffington Post the military declassified the indemnification agreement on Dec. 21 and gave it to him under a protective order that banned him from sharing the language to parties not involved in the case. John A. Elolf, a spokesman for KBR, confirmed the declassification of the agreement and said the contractor also was prevented from providing a copy. HuffPost has requested the document under the Freedom of Information Act from the Corps of Engineers. Read on…