WASHINGTON — KBR Inc. used employees with little electrical expertise to supervise subcontractors in Iraq and hired foreigners who couldn't speak English, former KBR electricians told a Senate panel investigating electrocutions of 13 Americans.
Experienced electricians who raised concerns about shoddy work and its possible hazards were often dismissed and told, "This is a war zone," the electricians said Friday.
"Time and again we heard, `This is not the states, OSHA doesn't apply here. If you don't like it you can go home,'" said Debbie Crawford, a journeyman electrician with 30 years experience.
Crawford and Jefferey Bliss, also a former KBR electrician, testified in the 17th hearing held by the Democratic Policy Committee, which has been examining waste, fraud and abuse in Iraq and the performance of the country's war contractors. Both Democrats and Republicans attended the hearing.
The Pentagon has said 13 Americans have been electrocuted in Iraq since September 2003. It has ordered Houston-based KBR to inspect all the facilities it maintains in Iraq for electrical hazards.
But Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who chaired the panel, questioned whether KBR could police its own work.
And Sen. Robert Casey, D-Pa., said, "I am angered that the department (of defense) appears to lack the urgency and outrage that all of us in this room share today."
In an e-mailed statement, KBR said its investigation so far has not turned up evidence of a link between its work and the electrocutions. "We continue to conduct technical inspections on all facilities serviced by KBR throughout Iraq to ensure safe and proper operations for those we serve," spokeswoman Heather Browne said in the statement.
The mothers of two soldiers who were electrocuted also testified about the deaths of their sons, Staff Sgt. Christopher Lee Everett and Staff Sgt. Ryan Maseth of Pittsburgh.
Everett, a member of the Texas Army National Guard, was electrocuted in September 2005, while using a power washer to clean sand from beneath a Humvee. Maseth, an Army Ranger and Green Beret, was electrocuted in January 2008 while taking a shower in his Army barracks in Baghdad.
"I plead with you to do something to bring an end to this unnecessary cause of death to our soldiers," said Larraine McGee of Huntsville, Texas. "They should not have to worry about stepping into a shower or using a power washer in the safety of an established base."
Bliss told the panel "carelessness and disregard for quality of work at KBR was pervasive."
Electricians were not given the tools needed to do their jobs. Additionally, KBR hired foreigners who were not familiar with U.S. electrical standards and who didn't speak English.
"I was surprised to discover how many KBR electricians did not have the right experience and training," Bliss said.
The soldiers' mothers said KBR and the Army knew of the electrical problems before their sons' deaths. KBR had inspected Maseth's housing 11 months before he died. The inspector noted that the main circuit panel, the secondary feeder panel and the water tank were not grounded, said Cheryl Harris, his mother.
Grounding reduces the risk of electrocution. Maseth's family has sued KBR.
McGee said she had been told by the Army that her son's death was unique. An Army report blamed his death on an improperly grounded generator that powered the power washer. McGee said she was told Everett's death led to all generators in Iraq being properly grounded.
But in April, she learned from a reporter the Army had issued a report on soldiers' electrocutions calling them the "unexpected killer." The report urged the Army to ensure contractors properly grounded electrical systems.
"All this time, I thought Chris' accident was an isolated incident," she said. "My son should not have died. Ryan Maseth should have never died. Proper grounding is a basic safety requirement. The problem was known about long before Chris' death."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Rep. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodland, released letters they've sent to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, on the electrocutions. Brady urged the Pentagon release all information on the deaths to congressional committees and spell out steps its taken to prevent other deaths.
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Democratic Policy Committee: http://dpc.senate.gov/