Joe Dellosa

Writing

Contractor tied to deaths (KBR)


KBR, the former Halliburton subsidiary that's now the Army's largest contractor, is a threat to the safety of our servicemen and servicewomen.

The latest evidence of this comes in the form of a report from the Department of Defense's inspector general released Monday that directly linked KBR with the death of Army Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth in January 2008.

Maseth was electrocuted while showering in a U.S. base in Iraq. The report said that KBR didn't ground equipment at the base during installation, including the water pump that short-circuited and killed Maseth, and failed to report improperly grounded equipment found on routine inspections. The report goes on to say that KBR, along with another contractor, “performed electrical repairs that perpetuated electrical hazards“ and fell short of the “skillful and workmanlike manner“ called for in KBR's contract.

KBR, predictably, continues to deny it had anything to do with Maseth's death. The company is also on the receiving end of several lawsuits from servicemen and servicewomen who were exposed to toxic fumes while working near or around KBR-operated, open-air burn pits.

According to an article in the July 13 issue of Newsweek, KBR was contracted to provide waste-disposal services for several U.S. bases in Iraq and Afghanistan. The company used these burn pits to incinerate things like medical waste, batteries and artillery, allowing carcinogens to permeate the air. One plaintiff reports having kidney disease, chronic bronchitis and a skin condition after being exposed to the fumes from one such burn pit. Similarly, CNN reported that other service members said they have severe chest pain, asthma, severe migraines and breathing problems.

KBR denies that it acted improperly, saying that their burn pits are operated as specified by Army guidelines — even as a KBR employee who operated a burn pit said he received no guidelines at all as to what he could and could not burn.

In a separate set of lawsuits filed against the company, dozens of National Guard soldiers allege KBR knew that an Iraqi water treatment plant was contaminated with the potentially deadly chemical hexavalent chromium and failed to tell them. The soldiers were assigned to protect KBR employees rebuilding the plant in 2003 and subsequently experienced serious health problems.

In an interview with West Virginia Public Broadcasting, one of the plaintiffs, Russell Powell, head paramedic of the West Virginia National Guard's 1092nd Engineering Battalion, said soldiers in his battalion began having nose bleeds, rashes and breathing problems shortly after arriving at the plant. Powell said that KBR officials blew off their concerns, dismissing the illnesses as the result of dry air.

Other soldiers assigned to protect the same water treatment plant experienced similar symptoms that persisted after returning home. For some soldiers, their symptoms went from bad to worse: one soldier developed lung cancer, and another died of lung disease. The lawsuits are still pending.

There are certainly several larger conversations that can be drawn from these incidents: the lack of oversight of military contractors, the potentially destructive results of politicians having cozy relationships with big business and the relevance of Dwight Eisenhower's warnings of a military-industrial complex run amok.

For now, the situation is simple: KBR is responsible for the death of a soldier and may be responsible for the illnesses and deaths of many more.

Those who put on the uniform to defend the values on which this country is based and to help those around the world offer their lives, their health and their well-being to do so. They deserve our warmest gratitude and deepest respect.

Instead, in the case of Ryan Maseth, KBR callously took him up on this offer by refusing to spend the resources necessary to prevent a death that was very preventable. It's infuriating, and it's unforgivable.

Our troops deserve much better than this — and, frankly, those culpable at KBR deserve much worse.


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