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Investigate Army's role.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The Pentagon's inspector general should investigate the U.S. Defense Department's failure to aggressively respond to the exposure of Oregon Army National Guard members and other troops to hazardous chemicals in Iraq.

The Army's response to soldiers exposed to hexavalent chromium - the deadly poison made famous by the movie "Erin Brockovich" - has been inadequate and emits more than a faint whiff of cover-up. Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., has compared it to the government's denial-driven, foot-dragging response as the health effects of Agent Orange emerged after the Vietnam War.

Four soldiers, including a former Oregon National Guard member, testified Monday before the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. Shortly after the U.S. invasion in 2003, they were deployed with their units to protect civilian workers repairing a water pumping plant in southern Iraq.

Rocky Bixby of Hillsboro was one of at least 48 Oregon soldiers who spent several weeks during the spring and summer of 2003 protecting workers of Houston-based defense contractor Kellogg, Brown & Root, which had been hired to restore the Qarmat Ali water plant.

While stationed at the water plant, members of the Oregon, West Virginia and Indiana National Guards were exposed to a powdered form of hexavalent chromium, a highly toxic industrial compound which, if inhaled in even minuscule amounts, greatly increases the risk of lung cancer. The troops' exposure came to light only after a KBR employee testified last year before the same Senate committee that he had been sent home after expressing concerns about a toxic orange powder strewn throughout the plant.

But the troops stationed at the facility were not aware of the contamination until the Pentagon and state military departments began mailing notifications earlier this year.

Bixby recalled at Monday's hearing that the toxic powder was everywhere in the plant. "It was thick and crusted over the sand ... The sand, dust and orange powder constantly got on our skin, in our eyes and in our mouths and noses," he said.

Herman Gibb, former associate director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a leading expert on hexavalent chromium, told the committee that soldiers were exposed to 80 to 200 times the federal limit for worker exposure to sodium dichromate, which contains hexavalent chromium and which Gibb called one of the most potent human carcinogens. Gibb told senators that an Army study and the notification letter sent to troops minimized the danger of their exposure.

The Pentagon's inspector general should find out why the Army failed to respond aggressively after it learned of the contamination. As for KBR, it appears the contractor was aware of a contamination risk at the time U.S. troops were stationed at the plant. On Monday, Dorgan read a KBR memo dated August 2003 that detailed the extent of the contamination and warned that "people are potentially exposed to something that may be very dangerous."

Despite that warning, the soldiers said they had no idea of the danger and were not advised to use masks and other available protective gear. At the time, their complaints of nosebleeds, headaches, skin sores and other health problems were dismissed as allergies to desert dust.

Bixby told lawmakers that he suffered from a chronic cough and shortness of breath after returning from Iraq. While he used to run miles with ease, he was unable to walk from his house to his car without losing his breath. After receiving his notification letter earlier this year, Bixby, a nonsmoker, told senators that he got a chest X-ray that revealed a node on his lung.

Other soldiers who were stationed at the plant have reported long-term health problems. Sen. Evan Bayh of Indiana, who serves on the policy committee, noted that one Indiana National Guard member already has died from lung disease.

Bixby is one of dozens of former National Guard members who have sued KBR. Meanwhile, Oregon and other states have acted on their own to provide financial assistance to Guard members who developed cancer after their exposure to toxins in Iraq.

More needs to be done, starting with an inspector general's investigation into the Defense Department's failure not only to protect troops from toxic chemicals at Qarmat Ali, but to come swiftly to their assistance after their exposure came to light.
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Title Annotation:Editorials
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Aug 6, 2009
Words:710
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