Halliburton’s KBR is back in the news for allowing workers in Iraq to be exposed to a “mild irritant.” That irritant is sodium dichromate and it’s a little more than an irritant. It’s a highly toxic chemical that causes cancer.
Nine American contractors are suing KBR according to a report from the Boston Globe. For 2 1/2 months they were covered by a substance that turned out to be sodium dichromate as they rushed to finish Qarmat Ali water injection plant that is a key component for the Iraq oil infrastructure in 2003.
The chemical was on their hands and clothes for each day that they were racing the clock to get the plant up and running. There were 22 Americans working on the project in addition to the more than 100 Iraqis. By the end of that 2 1/2 month period as many as 60 percent of those were dealing with nosebleeds, ulcers and shortness of breath.
“You cannot be exposed,” Max Costa, an expert witness in the Hinkley case who is chairman of the Department of Environmental Medicine at New York University Medical Center said. “It gets into your cells, damages your DNA, depresses your immune system, and down the road, it causes cancer.”
The chemical causes skin burns. It also damages the liver and kidneys. It causes chemical burns to the respiratory tract. Prolonged exposure can cause a lifetime sentence of asthma. It may impair fertility and if a pregnancy does occur it and alter genetic material. In other words it’s not a chemical that should come in contact with human beings.
Safety goggles and protective gloves are required to be used around this chemical. Protective clothing is another key safety measure.
Questions about the chemical can be answered by calling 800-424-9300.
There’s a problem though with the lawsuit and it’s called the Defense Base Act. Back during the Second World War federal employees are protected from employee lawsuits unless the employees suing can prove the company committed outright fraud.
The coast seems to be looking clear for KBR. Well almost clear. It seems that they may have screwed up more than just some employees healths. The company did some shifty hiring of those Americans to avoid paying payroll taxes. They hired their workers through two subsidiaries registered in the Cayman Islands. Oops, by going around the edges to not pay the government hundreds of millions of dollars for Social Security and Medicare taxes on their employees they shot that Defense Base Act in the foot. They are no longer an employer that is protected by the federal law. They are just some third party company that really screwed up and is liable for paying out millions when this lawsuit reaches the courts.
“What was done to us, I believe, it’s criminal,” said Danny Langford , a motor specialist from Texas who worked in the most contaminated room in the facility. “I think it was deliberate. They wanted this six month job – get you in, get you out, and send you on your way, and 10 years later you start dying of cancer.”
In the run up to the war in Iraq KBR signed a secret no bid contract to revive the oil wells after the proposed tumble of Saddam Hussein.
In relation to this chemical KBR knew that it was toxic. They knew that even a small exposure was taking a huge risk. They knew that and yet told employees that they were safe.
“We didn’t know what it was,” Langford said. “I kept going to the [Human Resources] department when we went back to Kuwait. They kept giving me pills. They said that maybe we were allergic to the sand. I said, ‘I have been around sand all my life, and I have never been allergic to it.’ “
The chances that KBR will step up to the plate though are slim to admit it’s wrongdoing. Did they play their ‘we’ve got buds in the White House’ card one to many times? Only the results from this lawsuit will give that answer.
“I wouldn’t be doing this if at the end of the day I didn’t think I could do something for the people I’m representing,” said Doyle. “But the reality is, so far, they have pretty much been able to escape scot-free.”