By DANA LIEBELSON
Lawyers representing U.S. soldiers poisoned at a water treatment plant in Iraq have presented strong evidence that contractor Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) knew personnel stationed there would be exposed to a carcinogenic chemical, according to The Associated Press. But as POGO reported earlier, KBR's contract with the U.S. Army contains a classified provision that lets KBR off the hook for damage, injury, and death occurring at its worksites--so even if KBR is proved to be at fault, U.S. taxpayers will be footing the bill.
KBR has claimed in depositions and testimony that it was unaware that it was exposing troops to sodium dichromate, which is believed to cause cancer. But according to the new complaint, an environmental assessment shows that KBR knew Iraqis had ordered 8 million pounds of the chemical to the plant to prevent water pipes from corroding— five months before KBR has claimed it realized troops were exposed. Worse, the assessment shows KBR expected that the plant would have “lax environmental maintenance and ‘lamentable’ conditions.”
Despite this assessment, over a five-month period in 2003, KBR exposed nearly 1,000 Army soldiers and civilians to the chemical. A 2011 Department of Defense Inspector General (DoD IG) report found that KBR failed to fully comply with safety and health standards, and acted too slowly in protecting the soldiers and civilians.
National Guard veterans from Oregon who were stationed at the water treatment plant sued KBR in 2009 for exposing them to the chemical—and current and former National Guard members from Indiana and West Virginia have also filed suits. The Oregonian revealed that the total cost of soldiers’ claims against the company could exceed $150 million.
But because of KBR’s secret indemnity provision, the contractor won’t be required to pay damages—taxpayers will. This isn’t the first time that KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton, has gotten into trouble—it has 26 instances of misconduct in POGO’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database, including a previous case of exposing troops to hazardous water from the Euphrates River. So why is the government still allowing this contractor—and others—to perform such high-risk tasks?
Indemnification agreements are sometimes necessary, as a contractor may be the only one qualified to do a high-risk job, but the contractor won’t agree to do if it is held responsible. However, these agreements should never be kept secret—especially in cases where taxpayers are responsible for paying for contractor negligence.
There’s just something decidedly unsavory about U.S. soldiers being poisoned while protecting a contractor that not only might be responsible for their injuries—but is allowed to walk away scot-free from any legal responsibility.
No wonder KBR’s managers are starting to sound like they have amnesia.
Dana Liebelson is POGO's Beth Daley Impact Fellow.
Photo via City Government of Houston.