By Teresa Carson
PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - Lawyers for 12 Oregon National Guardsmen suing contractor KBR Inc for negligence and fraud told a jury in Portland, Oregon on Wednesday that the soldiers were knowingly exposed to toxic chemicals in Iraq that made them ill.
The Oregon Guardsmen said the exposure took place while they were in Iraq in 2003 following the U.S.-led invasion to provide security for civilian workers restoring an oil industry water treatment 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 suit in federal court in Portland, have suffered various illnesses and disabilities and are at risk for various cancers, according to court filings in the trial that began on Wednesday.
"KBR knew what needed to be done ... before any employee went on this site," the guardsmen's lawyer Mike Doyle told a jury of six men and six women, accusing the firm of rushing the work there despite knowing of the potential risks.
A lawyer for Houston-based KBR, which was contracted by the U.S. government to work on more than 200 facilities, including the water plant site, responded that "the evidence will show that KBR openly, honestly and repeatedly communicated" the risks of the sodium dichromate to the military.
"KBR did inform actual National Guard on the ground about the risk," KBR lawyer Geoffrey Harrison told the jury, adding that 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, contains hexavalent chromium, made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts, which depicts Brockovich's work to uncover 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 700 bags of the chemical at the southern Iraq water facility. Court documents filed for the guardsmen said that much of the sodium dichromate was in powder form and blowing around the plant.
Court documents said that when the Oregon Guardsmen began showing symptoms such as nose bleeds, "KBR managers told soldiers on site that it was simply an effect of the dry desert air," the court documents said. The guardsmen say that in September 2003, when KBR managers inspected the plant, they wore protective gear and clothing.
Harrison questioned whether the guardsmen's ailments were caused by exposure at the site, noting an Army report that said long-term health effects were "very unlikely" from the amount of exposure that the Guards had. He also said that several of the Guardsmen were long-time smokers.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Brunnstrom)