INDIANAPOLIS — Sixteen Indiana National Guard soldiers sued the big defense contractor KBR Inc. on Wednesday, saying its employees knowingly allowed them to be exposed to a toxic chemical in Iraq five years ago.
The federal suit filed in U.S. District Court alleges the soldiers from a Tell City-based unit were exposed to a carcinogen while protecting an Iraqi water pumping plant shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003.
The 23-page complaint claims that Houston-based KBR knew at least as early as May 2003 that the plant was contaminated with sodium dichromate, a known carcinogen, but concealed the danger from civilian workers and 139 soldiers from the Indiana Guard's 1st Battalion, 152nd Infantry.
"It's not right, what they done," said Mark McManaway, a 55-year-old truck driver from Cannelton who has since retired from the Guard. McManaway, the main plaintiff in the lawsuit, has suffered nosebleeds and rashes he believes are due to the chemical exposure.
The chemical, used to remove pipe corrosion, is especially dangerous because it contains hexavalent chromium, which is known to cause birth defects and cancer, particularly lung cancer, the lawsuit said. The cancer can take years to develop.
Some of the soldiers who served at the site now have respiratory system tumors associated with hexavalent chromium exposure, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit seeks reimbursement for medical costs, monitoring for cancer and other health problems and unspecified monetary damages.
KBR issued a statement Wednesday saying the allegation it knowingly harmed troops and was responsible for an unsafe condition "is simply untrue."
"KBR's commitment to the safety and security of all employees, the troops and those we serve, is the company's top priority," the statement said.
The lawsuit, however, alleges that KBR knew of the contamination and played down the danger.
When Guard members and American civilians working at the plant began to have nosebleeds, KBR managers told them they were simply caused by the dry desert air, the lawsuit says. But nosebleeds are a symptom of acute hexavalent chromium poisoning, it says.
The work wasn't shut down until September 2003, after KBR managers in full environmental protective gear inspected the plant while workers and Guard members remained unprotected, the Guard members contend. The plant later reopened, but workers now wore protective gear, said Michael P. Doyle of Houston, the lead attorney in the case.
The extent of the company's knowledge of the hazard didn't become clear until congressional hearings this June, the lawsuit claims.
"They knew and they didn't tell nobody until they get drug into a Senate committee, where they have to start telling some of the truth," McManaway said. "It's not right."
KBR used to be a subsidiary within Halliburton Co., the oilfield services conglomerate whose chief executive from 1995 to 2000 was Vice President Dick Cheney. KBR became a separate public company last year.