PORTLAND, Ore. — A jury on Friday ordered an American military contractor to pay $85 million after finding it guilty of negligence for illnesses suffered by a dozen Oregon soldiers who guarded an oilfield water plant during the Iraq war.
After a three-week trial, the jury deliberated for just two days before reaching a decision against the contractor, Kellogg Brown and Root.
The suit was the first concerning soldiers’ exposure to a toxin at a water plant in southern Iraq. The soldiers said they suffer from respiratory ailments after their exposure to sodium dichromate, and they fear that a carcinogen the toxin contains, hexavalent chromium, could cause cancer later in life.
Another suit from Oregon Guardsmen is on hold while the Portland trial plays out. There are also suits pending in Indiana and West Virginia.
KBR witnesses testified that the soldiers’ maladies were a result of the desert air and pre-existing conditions. Even if they were exposed to sodium dichromate, KBR witnesses argued, the soldiers weren’t around enough of it, for long enough, to cause serious health problems.
The contractor’s defense ultimately rested on the fact that they informed the U.S. Army of the risks of exposure to sodium dichromate.
KBR was tasked with reconstructing the decrepit, scavenged plant just after the March 2003 invasion while National Guardsmen defended the area. Bags of unguarded sodium dichromate — a corrosive substance used to keep pipes at the water plant free of rust — were ripped open, allowing the substance to spread across the plant an into the air.
Attorneys for the 12 Oregon National Guardsmen focused on the months of April, May and June 2003, alleging KBR knew about the presence of sodium dichromate and took no action.
One of the soldiers’ key witnesses, a doctor, testified that hexavalent chromium caused a change to soldiers’ genes, leaving them more susceptible to cancer. KBR’s attorneys challenged that diagnosis, saying the soldiers’ witness was the only physician in the U.S. prepared to make such a diagnosis.
During the Iraq war, KBR was the engineering and construction arm of Halliburton, the biggest U.S. contractor during the conflict. KBR split from Halliburton in April 2007.
KBR has faced lawsuits before related to its work in Iraq. One of the more prominent cases, involving a soldier who was electrocuted in his barracks shower at an Army base, was dismissed.
A second case is still in Maryland federal court, in which former KBR employees and others who worked on Army bases in Iraq and Afghanistan allege KBR allowed them to be exposed to toxic smoke from garbage disposal “burn pits.”