WASHINGTON - Sixteen Indiana national guardsmen filed a lawsuit yesterday accusing KBR, the Houston-based US defense contractor, of knowingly exposing them to "one of the most potent carcinogens" known to man while they guarded a water treatment plant in Iraq that the company was repairing.
The complaint alleges that several reservists contracted respiratory system tumors and skin rashes after guarding reconstruction work at the Qarmat Ali treatment plant, which had been looted and was strewn with chromium dichromate, an anticorrosion substance used on pipes that greatly increases the chances of developing cancer and other health problems.
KBR managers "disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger of wholesale site contamination," alleges the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Indiana. The lawsuit accuses the company of gross negligence, alleging that reservists "were repeatedly told that there was no danger on the site" even after tests on civilian KBR workers showed elevated levels of chromium.
KBR was under a deadline to finish repairs on the plant, which pumped water to Iraq's oil fields. It knew in April 2003 that the chemical was harmful but did not clean the site until September, according to internal company memos filed in the case.
The Globe reported in March that civilian contractors working for KBR were allegedly made ill by chromium at the facility. Those contractors testified at a congressional hearing in June that US soldiers also experienced symptoms of chromium exposure.
Yesterday, Mark McManaway, a 54-year-old truck driver from Cannelton, Ind., who guarded the plant in 2003, said he contacted a lawyer after he learned of KBR workers who were ill.
"My eyes burned," he said yesterday, recalling his symptoms. "They still burn. I have blisters break out on my hands."
Spokeswoman Heather Browne said KBR took appropriate measures to clean up the chemical and denied that it had been negligent. "We deny the assertion that KBR harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition," Browne said in a statement.
In order for the lawsuit to succeed, lawyers for the soldiers must prove that KBR made its own decisions about the contract and should not share the legal immunity enjoyed by the US military, according to Steven Schooner, law professor at George Washington University.
News that civilian contractors at Qarmat Ali had been ill prompted the Indiana National Guard to try to track down and notify about 137 soldiers who were at the site and 457 other reservists who may have had contact with the facility.
Major General R. Martin Umbarger, head of the Indiana National Guard, said in a recent interview that he only found out about the exposure in June, when KBR testified before Congress.
"Why didn't anybody tell us that this was going on?" he said.
The Pentagon tested about 100 soldiers after it discovered the chemical at the site in 2003, but no obvious health effects were found, according to Dr. Craig Hyams, chief consultant for environmental health at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Symptoms of chromium exposure - such as a bloody nose and respiratory complaints - were common throughout Iraq, he said. But he acknowledged that it may still be too early to understand the impact. "Veterans Affairs is still analyzing the effects of Agent Orange," Hyams said, referring to the defoliant used in the Vietnam war.
Since their return, 47 Indiana guardsmen have been examined and so far no specific pattern of illness has been found, according to Dr. Ken Klotz, chief of staff at the Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center in Indianapolis.
But two cases of serious illness have sparked fear.
Earlier this year, the battalion commander in charge of soldiers at Qarmat Ali, Lt Col. James Gentry, was diagnosed with lung cancer. "I am a nonsmoker and I have small-cell cancer in my lungs. It is pretty rare," Gentry, who spent about 140 hours inside the Qarmat Ali plant, told the Globe in a recent interview. "I brought up to my doctor the situation [at Qarmat Ali] and he agreed that this could be a cause, but he also said there could be multiple other reasons."
Another soldier from the battalion, Sergeant David Moore, died in February of interstitial lung disease, according to his daughter's mother, Audrey Weisheit. Moore was a smoker. But Weisheit said veterans affairs officials reviewed his medical file and sent her a letter last week declaring his death "service-related."
Weisheit said she is "grateful" for the ruling, which allows her daughter to receive benefits.
"But," she said yesterday, "It doesn't answer a lot of questions" about his death.