July 22, 2010 Liz Borkowski, MPH 0Comment

The Oregonian’s Julie Sullivan has been following the story of the National Guard troops who were exposed to the carcinogen hexavalent chromium at the Qarmat Ali water plant in Iraq – which contracting giant KBR was tasked with rebuilding. (Oregonian stories are here; also see our past posts on the subject here, here, and here.) Now, Sullivan reports, US Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon has sent a “sharply worded” letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asking for details about an immunity deal that KBR reportedly struck with the Department of Defense. Twenty-six Oregon Army National Guard veterans who were stationed at Qarmat Ali are suing KBR in the US District Court in Portland, claiming the company knowingly or negligently exposed them to a carcinogen; word of KBR’s immunity agreement came from a deposition in the case:

But during a June 22 deposition in the Portland case, Chris Heinrich, a Texas attorney for KBR, revealed his company had performed contingency planning in 2002 that identified hazards in the Iraqi oil fields, well before the invasion.

After KBR had signed its no-bid Restore Iraqi Oil contract and as the coalition invasion was taking place in March 2003, Heinrich said he went to the Pentagon himself to demand immunity for KBR’s restoration work. Heinrich told Army officials that KBR refused to do the job unless granted “broad coverage.” KBR required that the U.S. Treasury — taxpayers and not the contractor — pay for any property damage, injury or death of any soldier or civilian working at a KBR site. That applied even if the harm resulted from KBR negligence.

“We proposed some language that we preferred to have in terms of the indemnification,” Heinrich said, adding that the agreement was typed up during that single meeting with an Army attorney. Heinrich said an amended contract was signed shortly afterward by the secretary of the army — at the time Tom White — or someone at the “secretariat level.”

In his letter to Secretary Gates, Blumenauer requests that DoD provide a copy of its contract with KBR, a list of other contractors granted indemnification, and information about the taxpayers’ financial burden resulting from indemnity agreements. He also asks “whether Congress was notified when the Department entered into contracts that burdened US taxpayers with the risk and legal responsibility for the actions of private contractors.” (Full text of the letter is here.)

In other news:

Washington Post: Senior military commanders are shifting toward an attitude that post-traumatic stress disorders and traumatic brain injury are combat-related injuries that should get immediate treatment.

Charleston Gazette: OSHA issued six serious violations and a fine of $43,000 to DuPont Co. over workplace safety violations at the company’s Belle, WV plant, where worker Danny Fish was killed by a phosgene leak in January.

Marketplace: Despite Egypt’s laws against children under 15 working in fields, it’s not hard to find young children laboring in the country’s cotton fields, some of them spraying pesticides.

CIDRAP: The Infectious Diseases Society of America recommends that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revise their guidelines for controlling flu in healthcare settings to make influenza vaccination mandatory for healthcare workers.

Washington Post: A construction worker who was installing a balcony railing at an Arlington, VA hotel fell seven stories to his death.

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