Defense contractor KBR may have exposed as many as 100,000 people, including US troops, to cancer-causing toxins by burning waste in open-air pits in Iraq, says a series of class-action lawsuits filed against the company.
At least 22 separate lawsuits claiming KBR poisoned American soldiers in Iraq have been combined into a single massive lawsuit that says KBR, which until not long ago was a subsidiary of Halliburton, sought to save money by disposing of toxic waste and incinerating numerous potentially harmful substances in open-air "burn pits."
According to one of the lawsuits (PDF), filed in a federal court in Nashville, KBR burned "tires, lithium batteries ... biohazard materials (including human corpses), medical supplies (including those used during smallpox inoculations), paints, solvents, asbestos insulation, items containing pesticides, polyvinyl chloride pipes, animal carcasses, dangerous chemicals, and hundreds of thousands of plastic water bottles."
And they did so within plain sight of US troops operating in Iraq, the lawsuit states. "In some instances, the burn pit smoke was so bad that it interfered with the military mission," the Nashville lawsuit states. "For example, the military located at Camp Bucca, a detention facility, had difficulty guarding the facility as a result of the smoke."
The plaintiffs note that the military "did not prevent" KBR from disposing of the waste "in a safe manner that would not have harmed plaintiffs. The military wanted the defendants to solve the burn pit problems."
The lawsuit "claims at least 100,000 people were endangered by the contractors' 'utter indifference to and conscious disregard' of troops' welfare," notes the Courthouse News Service.
At a hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee on Friday, Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said that KBR continues to use burn pits at the US's largest base in Iraq.
“The Army and the contractor in charge of this waste disposal -- Kellogg, Brown, and Root -- made frequent and unnecessary use of these burn pits and exposed thousands of US troops to toxic smoke," Dorgan said. "Burn pits are still used at the Balad Airbase in Iraq, which is the largest US base in that country.”
A 2008 report by the Pentagon asserted that "adverse health risks are unlikely" from the burn pits, but that assertion was challenged by retired Lt. Col. Darrin Curtis, a biomedical sciences officer who took some of the air samples used in the report.
“Although I have no hard data, I believe that the burn pits may be responsible for long-term health problems in many individuals,” the Air Force Times quoted Curtis as saying. “I think we are going to look at a lot of sick people.”
EXPOSURE A 'PRE-EXISTING CONDITION'
The plaintiffs filing the lawsuits say they have suffered from health problems ranging in seriousness from shortness of breath to cancer. Russell Keith, a paramedic from Huntsville, Alabama, told the Senate Democratic Policy Committee his doctors believe his development of Parkinson's disease was triggered by 15 months of daily exposure to the burn pits at Joint Base Balad in Iraq. Another plaintiff claims to have developed kidney disease as a result of exposure.
Former KBR employee Rick Lambeth told the committee: "Since returning home in July, I have suffered from a number of respiratory problems related to the exposure. Now the military will not pay for my medical care. They claim that these conditions ... existed prior to service.”
For its part, KBR says that it has been "improperly named" in the lawsuit, and points the finger at the military.
"There are significant discrepancies between the plaintiffs’ claims in the burn litigation against KBR and the facts on this issue," Heather Browne, director of corporate communications, told the Nashville Post. Browne said that KBR doesn't operate all the burn pits in Iraq; that the Army, and not the company, decides on burn pit locations; and that the Army decides when to fund an incinerator and when to burn waste in the open air.