Ex-Guardsmen claim they were exposed to carcinogens

By Kelly Holleran | Aug 20, 2009

WEIRTON -- Seven former guardsmen have filed suit against contractor KBR and its subsidiaries, saying the companies exposed the men to a highly carcinogenic substance at a water plant where they worked as security.

Plaintiffs Dale Gallaher of Kansas City; Robert Wilson of Dunbar; Russell Powell of Moundsville; Andru Keller of Middlebourne; Eric Heid of Rocky Mount, N.C.; John Headley of Paden City and Bradley Ebert of Wheeling say their exposure to sodium dichromate, which contains nearly pure hexavalent chromium, may cause them to experience cancer in the near future.

In fact, some men already have begun developing respiratory system tumors characteristic with growths associated with hexavalent chromium exposure, according to the suit.

"According to Dr. Max Costa, a recognized expert on the human effects of hexavalent chromium and Chairman of the NYU Medical School Department of Environmental Medicine, exposure to 30-40 micrograms of hexavalent chromium per cubic meter, has been demonstrated to show more than 50 percent increase in cancers in exposed humans," according to the lawsuit, filed June 25 in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of West Virginia.

The hexavalent chromium can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion or even through the skin and most commonly causes lung cancer, the suit states.

"Based upon the best scientific evidence, persons exposed to injurious levels of hexavalent chromium have an expected 1 in 5 cancer rate," the complaint says. "Once hexavalent chromium has damaged the body, and in particular at the cellular level, there is no 'fix.' Instead, vigilant health care and early treatment, if possible, is the only protection that medical science can afford exposed individuals from the anticipated future consequences."

The plaintiffs were exposed to the toxic substance while working for KBR at the Qarmat Ali water plant in southern Iraq. The company was involved in a no-bid contract project in which it agreed to restore the water plant. The company's work would allow water to be pumped down into the Iraqi oil wells for a more consistent oil flow, the suit states.

When it hired West Virginia guardsmen and other British and American civilians to perform work on the well, KBR knew about the toxic substance and dangers of the site, but failed to inform the men, the complaint says. In fact, KBR conducted a full-analysis identifying the hazards at Qarmat Ali in April 2003, according to the complaint.

"What these knowing acts and omissions meant to the West Virginia Guardsmen providing security for the actual work at Qarmat Ali, was months of unprotected, unknowing, direct exposure to one of the most potent carcinogens and mutagenic substances known to man, hexavalent chromium," the suit states.

Soon after they began working at the site, West Virginia guardsmen began to experience bloody noses, a characteristic symptom of acute hexavalent chromium poisoning, the plaintiffs claim.

But when they told KBR managers of their problems, the managers downplayed the symptoms, saying they were just an effect of the dry desert air. In addition, managers told men with bloody noses they must be allergic to sand, according to the complaint.

By August 2003, about 60 percent of workers at the site were showing symptoms of acute hexavalent chromium poisoning. However, the work was not fully stopped until September 2003, the suit states.

And it was not until congressional hearings in June of 2008 that the West Virginia guardsmen and the public became fully aware of the dangers of hexavalent chromium, the complaint says.

During the hearings, an American civilian medic, Ed Blacke, talked about his treatment by KBR managers after he caught on to the hazardous exposure in July 2003 through his own investigations.

After researching the toxic substance online and finding its dangerous propensities, Blacke contacted the HSE and the project manager in Kuwait. In turn, they sent Safety Manager Tommy Mornay and Medical Supervisor Ray Garcia to speak with workers.

"They told the workers that sodium dichromate was a mild irritant at worst, that the plant had been thoroughly checked out and was safe, and that they were to get back to work," Blacke said during the congressional hearing. "I was at the meeting and was shocked that fellow safety and medical professionals were telling such outrageous and blatant lies to workers."

After pointing out his findings, Blacke said he was asked to be quiet and to leave.

"I was determined to pursue the complaint with higher-ups in KBR's HSE department in Kuwait, and upon attempting to do so, it was made clear to me that my presence in Iraq and Kuwait was no longer appreciated and that I would be better off going home," Blacke said at the congressional hearing.

Because of the plaintiffs' exposure to the toxic substance, the men say they now must undergo ongoing, expensive follow-up care.

"The West Virginia Guardsmen have consistently gone above and beyond the call of duty for their fellow citizens, year after year, many for decades, responding to natural disasters; serving after 9-11 to protect the home front; and proudly putting themselves on the line in Iraq," the suit states. "The West Virginia Guardsmen and their fellow soldiers accepted the hazards from enemy action while doing their part to assist the United States in restoring freedom to Iraq, but could not even imagine that KBR's managers would act in a manner that directly and continuously exposed them to serious health impacts for the rest of their lives."

Other defendants named in the suit include Kellogg, Brown and Root Services, KBR Technical Services, Overseas Administration Services and Service Employees International.

Causes of action in the complaint include negligence, gross negligence, tort of outrage and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The plaintiffs are seeking actual, punitive and exemplary damages, plus pre- and post-judgment interest, costs and other relief the court deems just.

Michael G. Simon and Carl N. Frankovitch of Frankovitch, Anetakis, Colantonio and Simon in Weirton and Michael P. Doyle, Jeffrey L. Raizner and Patrick M. Dennis of Doyle Raizner in Houston be representing them.

U.S. District Court case number: 5:09- CV-69

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