Safety lacking at Iraqi facility
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A recent report faults a national defense contractor and U.S. military officials for failing to comply with and enforce workplace safety standards as Americans - including 122 members of the West Virginia National Guard - were exposed to a cancer-causing chemical in Iraq.
The report concludes a two-year investigation by the Department of Defense's Office of the Inspector General. About 1,000 U.S. Army soldiers and U.S. Army civilian employees were exposed to sodium dichromate at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in southeastern Iraq, near Basra.
The chemical is an orange powder and a known carcinogen.
The report is the second on the incident. The first report was released last year and focused on government efforts to identify, monitor and care for those who were exposed - an effort that took several years.
The second part, released late last month, details how the exposure happened in the first place.
As the invasion of Iraq began in March 2003, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers formed Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil. The task force partnered with defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root, known as KBR, to restore Iraq's oil industry.
One of the hundreds of facilities that needed restored was the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant. Water from the plant was injected into the ground to drive oil to the surface.
Unbeknownst to U.S. officials, Iraqis who operated the facility before the war began apparently treated the pipes with sodium dichromate to prevent them from corroding.
Russell Powell, a Moundsville native who was deployed with the West Virginia National Guard as a medic, described the scene when soldiers and contractors first arrived weeks after the invasion. They found "a coating of orange colored dust throughout the facility," Powell said.
"At that time no one knew or made any concerns of what the powder was," Powell told a Senate committee in 2009.
At times, the dust was so thick there were "at least two inches" on his boots. Desert dust storms often came through, blowing the dust into the air.
"At no time were we offered any kind of protective clothing, masks, or respirators to protect us from the elements," he testified. "During these storms or shortly thereafter soldiers in the company, KBR workers and myself would have severe nose bleeds, coughing up blood, a hard time breathing, nausea, and/or a burning sensation of the lungs and throat."
The report doesn't make mention of such vivid imagery but found that KBR didn't rush to find out what the dust was. Nor did the military enforce workplace safety standards KBR had agreed to keep.
The response from KBR and the government was "delayed," the inspector general's report concluded.
The U.S. Department of Defense's own response "lacked urgency and was incomplete."
For instance, officials didn't know what the dust was for months even after KBR had reason to suspect it was sodium dichromate.
U.S. troops began escorting Defense Department officials and KBR contractors from Kuwait to Qarmat Ali in April 2003. Members of the West Virginia, Oregon, South Carolina and Indiana National Guards provided escort at different times. From late April to sometime around the beginning of August, about 122 members of West Virginia National Guard's 1092nd Engineer Battalion were part of the escort.
The report found that as they arrived in Iraq to help restore the oil industry, both KBR and the Army Corps' oil task force focused on military threats - not threats posed by exposure to environmental hazards and industrial sites.
"We found no evidence that representatives from either organization considered the presence of industrial or non-military environmental hazards in the decision to proceed to any oil infrastructure site, including the facility at Qarmat Ali," the report said.
Once there, it took at least two months for KBR to notify the government of potential soil contamination from the chemical, according to report.
The inspector general found that:
* KBR first reviewed an Iraqi operating manual that described the use of the chemical on May 31, 2003.
* In early June, a KBR employee observed and recorded discolored soils.
* Later in June, KBR and Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil representatives both reported the site was potentially contaminated, though that wasn't confirmed until KBR tested the site in mid August.
In the process, KBR failed to comply with workplace safety standards as required by its contract with the government, and the government failed to enforce KBR's compliance with those standards, the report found.
"Contractor recognition of, and response to, the health hazard represented by sodium dichromate contamination, once identified at the Qarmat Ali facility, was delayed," the report found.
"The delay occurred because KBR did not fully comply with occupational safety and health standards required by the contract, and Task Force Restore Iraqi Oil failed to enforce contractor compliance. As a result, a greater number of Service members and DOD civilian employees were exposed to sodium dichromate, and for longer periods, increasing the potential for chronic health effects and future liabilities."
KBR, along with subcontractor Halliburton, got the plant partially up and running by June 2003, before they identified the dust.
The report also said that KBR even attempted to purchase more of the chemical in July but canceled that plan in late August. The Iraqi oil company that had operated the facility also wanted to buy more sodium dichromate in December 2003, but KBR denied the request.
Sens. Jay Rockefeller and Joe Manchin, both D-W.Va., have both pressed government officials for answers about the exposure and for the troops to be provided military care.
"I'm glad I could play a role in helping our National Guard get answers in this terrible, deadly situation," Manchin said through a spokeswoman.
"This can never happen again, and as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, I will work hard to make sure that the right safeguards are in place to protect all the men and women serving our country.
"For those West Virginians who were affected by these chemicals, my office will work with anyone who was affected to get the treatment they need."
Contact writer Ry Rivard at email@example.com or 304-348-1796.