Investigation ordered into chemical exposure

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Williams man says cancer developed after Iraq service

The Department of Defense inspector general will initiate an investigation into the U.S. Army’s response to the exposure of hundreds of U.S. soldiers to the deadly chemical sodium dichromate in Iraq.

The investigation came at the request at U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind.

In 2003, 142 members of the Indiana National Guard, led by a Williams resident, Indiana National Guard Lt. Col. James Gentry (now retired), were among troops guarding the Qarmat Ali Water Treatment Plant in Iraq.

The plant was being rebuilt by the Houston-based construction firm KBR, then a subsidiary of the oil conglomerate Halliburton. Despite on-site assurances that the orange, sand-like dust spread throughout the facility was a “mild irritant,” it was later revealed to be sodium dichromate. A major component of sodium dichromate is hexavalent chromium, one of the world’s most carcinogenic substances.

Gentry has since been diagnosed with cancer and told the Times-Mail in December he was convinced his wartime experience involving exposure to sodium dichromate in Iraq caused his illness.

Capitol Hill hearings on the issue have subsequently revealed a number of failures by KBR to warn troops and even their own employees of the exposure and to properly clean up the contamination. Hearings also exposed multiple failures by the Army either to hold KBR accountable or to inform and test soldiers once the Army did learn of the contamination.

“This investigation is an important step in our efforts to learn what went wrong at Qarmat Ali and why members of the Indiana National Guard didn’t receive timely notification about the extreme dangers of sodium dichromate,” Bayh said. “The failure of the Army to properly warn our troops of these dangers or to properly clean the site unwittingly exposed hundreds of soldiers to carcinogenic toxins. It is essential that the Defense Department take a hard look at this incident to learn the lessons of Qarmat Ali and make sure that service members are never again needlessly exposed to hazardous chemicals while deployed.”

The Department of Defense inspector general’s investigation of the Army’s actions was requested in August by Bayh and six members of the U.S. Senate.

Charles Beardall, the deputy inspector general for policy and oversight, informed the senators by letter that the IG has initiated an investigation that began in September. The senators asked the IG to investigate seven specific areas related to the exposure and the Army’s response to it.

Another concern of the senators has been whether the Army is adequately informing the Department of Veterans Affairs about the exposure and its potentially deadly consequences. Having such information is vital to proper treatment and even the ability of former soldiers to be treated by the Veterans Administration for a “service-connected” sickness that could take years after the initial exposure to develop.

Bayh has proposed legislation to create an Agent Orange-style registry for U.S. military personnel exposed to hazardous chemicals while serving in the line of duty. The Bayh proposal would guarantee access to follow-up medical evaluations and priority status at VA medical facilities for service members who have been exposed to occupational and environmental hazards while deployed.

“If you serve in combat conditions, you are entitled to the best care possible,” Bayh said. “We must diligently track which soldiers may have been placed at risk and ensure they have access to the best care our country has to offer.”

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