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Soldiers Claim War Zone Contractors Exposed Them to Toxins

Nashville lawsuit one of several over 'burn pits' in Iraq and Afghanistan alleged to contain dioxin, asbestos and human corpses

by E. Thomas Wood

Contractors working for the military in Iraq and Afghanistan are fouling the nests of U.S. soldiers with pollution, poisoning the troops in the very bases meant to be their sanctuaries.

That's the central allegation in a new set of lawsuits filed in Nashville and elsewhere across the country. The legal actions name as defendants the controversial contracting firm KBR Inc. (formerly Kellogg Brown and Root), as well as Halliburton Co., of which KBR used to be a subsidiary, and a Turkish general contracting firm, ERKA Ltd.

"These for-profit corporations callously exposed and continue to expose soldiers and others to toxic smoke, ash and fumes," says the complaint filed in Nashville on Friday, which asks for damages on behalf of two Tennessee soldiers. "These exposures are causing a host of serious diseases, increased risk of serious diseases in the future, death and increased risk of death."

The lawsuit, which seeks class-action status, describes "burn pits" at U.S. bases in both military theaters that contain "every type of waste imaginable." Reading like a postmodern version of Jonathan Swift's Description of a City Shower, the catalog of rubbish in the pits includes:

"Tires, lithium batteries, Styrofoam, paper, wood, rubber, petroleum-oil-lubricating products, metals, hydraulic fluids, munitions boxes, medical waste, biohazard materials (including human corpses), medical supplies (including those used during smallpox inoculations), paints, solvents, asbestos insulation, items containing pesticides, polyvinyl chloride pipes, animal carcasses, dangerous chemicals, and hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles."

"Flames shoot hundreds of feet into the sky" as the huge pits are set ablaze, the Nashville lawsuit claims.

Noting that "burning plastics emit dioxins, which are known to cause cancer," the complaint accuses the defendants of negligence, battery and inflicting emotional distress. Saying an estimated 100,000 soldiers and contract personnel may have been harmed by the smoke from the pits, the plaintiffs want the court to force KBR and the other companies to cover future medical expenses and pay other compensatory damages.

It also seeks punitive damages "in an amount sufficient to strip defendants of all of the revenue and profits earned from their pattern of constant, wanton and outrageous misconduct and callous disregard and utter indifference to the welfare of Americans serving and working in Iraq and Afghanistan."

Attorneys from the Washington D.C. law firm Burke O'Neil LLC brought the Nashville case, with Klint W. Alexander of Wyatt Tarrant & Combs LLP as local counsel.

They are suing on behalf of Anthony Ray Johnson and David Michael Rohmfeld, both of whom are identified as Tennessee residents. Johnson currently has a mailing address at Ft. Gordon, Ga., headquarters of the Army's Signal Corps, but his past and present military unit affiliations are not given. No such information is available on Rohmfeld, either, but his address is in Clarksville, and he recently identified himself in an online posting as a system analyst and instructor at Westar Aerospace & Defense Group.

Johnson was stationed at Ft. Caldwell and Camp Bucca in Iraq on two deployments between 2004 and 2008. The complaint says he has asthma, trouble breathing, migraines and a chronic cough.

Rohmfeld's Army service took him to military bases at Kandahar and Bagram, Afghanistan in 2003. There he was "constantly exposed to the hazardous toxins emitted from the burn pits designed and operated by" KBR and the other defendants, the lawsuit alleges. "As a direct result of his exposure," the complaint continues, "Rohmfeld was diagnosed with asthma and uses two steroid inhalers, as well as a rescue inhaler."

KBR, Halliburton respond

At least 22 lawsuits over "burn pits" at US bases have been filed nationwide in the past year. A panel of judges last month consolidated the cases for litigation in Maryland's district court, and its order appears to indicate that newly filed lawsuits will become part of the Maryland case as well. The Burke O'Neil firm is involved with several of those lawsuits, and it filed a complaint in Nevada on Friday that is essentially identical to the Nashville case. Further such cases are expected to be filed this week.

Halliburton spokesperson Diana Gabriel over the weekend reiterated prior assertions that her company is "improperly named" in such legal actions and said she expects Halliburton to be dismissed from them. Halliburton and KBR, both now publicly traded companies, separated their operations earlier in this decade after KBR had been a Halliburton subsidiary since the 1960s.

Heather Browne, director of corporate communications for KBR, issued a statement asserting that "there are significant discrepancies between the plaintiffs' claims in the burn litigation against KBR and the facts on this issue." Among the points Browne made:

  • "KBR provides burn pit services at some, but not all, bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the sites where KBR provides burn pit services, the company does so... in accordance with the relevant provisions" of its contracts as well as "operational guidelines approved by the Army."
  • "KBR does not decide where to locate or operate a burn pit. That decision is made by the Army. KBR operates burn pits in accordance with guidelines approved by the Army. Further, it is the Army that also decides where on base to locate the living and working facilities for base personnel."
  • "It is not KBR's decision to use burn pits or to install incinerators" instead of burn pits. "When the Army makes the decision that an incinerator will be used in lieu of other methods of waste disposal, it funds the purchase of the incinerator and directs KBR or other contractors to provide operational and maintenance services. KBR and other tenants on bases have no ability to use an incinerator until directed by the Army."
  • "The Army creates a prohibited items list that determined which wastes could not be placed in a burn pit. At bases where KBR provides burn pit services, KBR posts these lists to provide notice to waste generators. If KBR observes a waste generator delivering a prohibited item, its practice is to refuse or remove such items."
  • "At some of the bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Army decided to use burn pits but elected not to have military personnel operate them, KBR and other contractors are doing exactly what the Army would be doing" if it were running the pits.
  • "KBR does not place human body parts in burn pits."
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