Oregon guardsmen say were knowingly exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Ore., Oct 10 (Reuters) - Lawyers for 12 OregonNational Guardsmen suing contractor KBR Inc for negligence andfraud told a jury in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday that thesoldiers were knowingly exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq thatmade them ill.

The Oregon Guardsmen said the exposure took place while theywere in Iraq in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion to providesecurity for civilian workers restoring an oil industry watertreatment plant that was contaminated with sodium dichromate.KBR was contracted to run the project at the plant at that time.

The guardsmen, who ask for unspecified damages in the suitin federal court in Portland, have suffered various illnessesand disabilities and are at risk for various cancers, accordingto court filings in the trial that began on Wednesday.

"KBR knew what needed to be done ... before any employeewent on this site," the guardsmen's lawyer Mike Doyle told ajury of six men and six women, accusing the firm of rushing thework there despite knowing of the potential risks.

A lawyer for Houston-based KBR, which was contracted by theU.S. government to work on more than 200 facilities, includingthe water plant site, responded that "the evidence will showthat KBR openly, honestly and repeatedly communicated" the risksof the sodium dichromate to the military.

"KBR did inform actual National Guard on the ground aboutthe risk," KBR lawyer Geoffrey Harrison told the jury, addingthat KBR was not in direct charge of the guardsmen at the site."KBR was not allowed to direct the soldiers to do anything."

The chemical in question, sodium dichromate, containshexavalent chromium, made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich,"starring Julia Roberts, which depicts Brockovich's work touncover pollution of the water supply of a California town.

The guardsmen described the compound in the court filings as"a highly potent carcinogen."

The guardsmen's lawyer Mike Doyle told jurors there were 700bags of the chemical at the southern Iraq water facility. Courtdocuments filed for the guardsmen said that much of the sodiumdichromate was in powder form and blowing around the plant.

Court documents said that when the Oregon Guardsmen beganshowing symptoms such as nose bleeds, "KBR managers toldsoldiers on site that it was simply an effect of the dry desertair," the court documents said. The guardsmen say that inSeptember 2003, when KBR managers inspected the plant, they woreprotective gear and clothing.

Harrison questioned whether the guardsmen's ailments werecaused by exposure at the site, noting an Army report that saidlong-term health effects were "very unlikely" from the amount ofexposure that the Guards had. He also said that several of theGuardsmen were long-time smokers.

(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)

((Cynthia.johnston@thomsonreuters.com)(702 280 0094))