Tuesday, July 14, 2009

W. Va. soldiers sue firm for chemical exposure in Iraq

Seven soldiers from a W.Va. unit are suing a U.S. contractor for chemical exposure in Iraq
Former West Virginia National Guardsman Russell Powell holds a photo of him on patrol near a water treatment plant in Basrah, Iraq, in 2003. where he was likely exposed to hexavalent chromium, a toxic chemical.

MOUNDSVILLE, W.Va. -- Russell Powell wondered for years after he returned from Iraq why he couldn't run even short distances without wheezing.

Following his yearlong tour of duty that ended in 2004, he coached his son's Little League team, but had to stop because it exhausted him.

The 34-year-old, who was able to run two miles in 9:44 before he went to Iraq in 2003, said now he is lucky to finish in 20 minutes.

He was discharged from the West Virginia Army National Guard for medical reasons at the end of 2008 because he was unable to meet physical requirements. Since he started his new job as a corrections officer for a West Virginia prison earlier this year, he's had to use several sick days and vacation days to visit doctors.

In February, Mr. Powell, who was a sergeant in the 1092d Engineer Battalion, received a letter from the state surgeon of the West Virginia Army National Guard. He thinks it explains why he's been out of breath and nauseous, suffering from rashes and sick to his stomach for the last five years. And he thinks it explains why, for three months in Iraq, he constantly coughed up blood, had frequent bloody noses and, at one point, passed out, waking up in a hospital with blackened lips and a blistered face.

The letter said Mr. Powell and other soldiers in his unit may have been exposed to sodium dichromate, an industrial chemical used to prevent the corrosion of pipes at a water treatment facility near Basrah, Iraq.

The chemical contains hexavalent chromium, which can cause sores inside the nose and on the skin, general skin irritation, nose bleeding, wheezing, coughing and pain in the chest when breathing, fever, nausea and upset stomach. It also has been linked to cancer.

Hexavalent chromium was the subject of the 2000 film "Erin Brockovich," which followed the true story of people in a California town who developed health problems following exposure to the chemical. They sued Pacific Gas and Electric Co., settling in 1996 for $333 million.

Mr. Powell said that before he received the letter, he had not known he might have been exposed to the chemical during the three months he worked at the plant.

"Maybe this is the reason why I'm sick," he thought. Doctors who were shown the letter tested Mr. Powell for cancer but have found none.

On June 25, Mr. Powell and six other members of his company in the 1092d, sued KBR, the firm in charge of rebuilding the water treatment facility.

The lawsuit alleges that KBR managers knew about the site contamination and the threat it posed, and "disregarded and downplayed the extreme danger" to West Virginia National Guardsmen. It argues that the guardsmen are entitled to payment or reimbursement for all medical expenses resulting from sodium dichromate exposure.

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