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Killing, Bribery and Rape: The Corporate Crimes of KBR

October 8, 2009

While purportedly helping to wage war to rid the world of a regime holding chemical and biological “weapons of mass destruction,” the Army’s largest military contractor stood by while hundreds of soldiers and contract staff (and presumably any Iraqis in the area) were exposed to one of the most highly toxic chemicals known to man. Today, two of the exposed soldiers are dead, another is in end-of-life hospice care, and dozens more suffer from chronic respiratory and other illnesses.

All this courtesy of Houston-based KBR, Inc, formerly known as Kellogg, Brown and Root, later a subsidiary of Halliburton, where former V.P. Dick Cheney served as CEO; Halliburton then spun-off the company in 2007. In just the past four years, over 100 civil suits have been brought against KBR and Halliburton. A lawsuit filed by an investors’ group this May called KBR/Halliburton’s operations a “reign of terror” and alleged the company engaged in bribery, overcharging the U.S. government, accepting kickbacks, engaging in human trafficking and concealing the rape of an employee.

Last September, former KBR CEO Albert “Jack” Stanley pled guilty to charges relating to a nine-year, $180 million bribery scheme he coordinated to win natural gas contracts from the Nigerian government. In February, KBR pled guilty to bribery charges and was fined more than $500 million, the largest-ever fine to a U.S. company for overseas bribery. Since 2001, KBR has collected over $34 billion from U.S. military and reconstruction contracts, including $5.7 billion in 2008, up from $4.8 billion in 2007.

This week, KBR/Halliburton was the target of legislation introduced by Minnesota Senator Al Franken, which would require companies receiving government military contracts to eliminate clauses in employment contracts that force employees to take discrimination or sexual harassment cases to arbitration, denying them the right to hear their complaints in the courts. The proposed legislation follows the case of Jamie Leigh Jones, who alleges she was raped by co-workers when she worked for KBR in Iraq in 2005. Speaking for the draft, Franken said, “The victims of rape and discrimination deserve their day in court [and] Congress plainly has the constitutional power to make that happen.” Thirty Republicans voted against the amendment (which passed 68-30), questioning the government’s right to get involved in “private” contracts (of course, Republicans supported withholding federal funds from private Universities if the schools chose to limit military recruiting; but they can’t support a rape victims’ right to due process if it gets in the way of funds for a Republican-favorite corporate criminal).

KBR’s latest environmental health crime involves civilian and military staff serving at one of Iraq’s southern oil sites, Qarmat Ali. One month after U.S. soldiers arrived at the site, a KBR “safety manager” was informed of the presence of sodium dichromate, a concentrated type of hexavalent chromium, the water pollutant responsible for poisoning residents of Hinkley, California. Many soldiers and staff almost immediately complained about health problems that exactly mirrored symptoms of toxic exposure, but were reportedly told by KBR managers that it was an effect of the “dry desert air” or that they must be “allergic to sand.”

But three months after learning of the sodium dichromate issue at the site, KBR dispatched a team for a site visit. After their August 2003 visit, the KBR staff wrote a memo calling sodium dichromate “a very toxic chemical (that) has been shown to cause cancer in humans….chronic exposure has been shown to cause lung damage, liver damage, tooth decay, digestive disorders and cancer.” The memo noted that staff were observed “eating on the floor” where sodium dichromate dust was ubiquitous; the report noted that none of the personnel on the site had any protective clothing or equipment.

But in September, once the company began to understand its potential liability for exposing soldiers, a KBR “Health, Safety and Environmental” department staffer wrote, “We must be careful from a litigation standpoint how we address the chemicals. My basic premise [is] that we cannot say sodium dichromate is a known human carcinogen.” To this day, KBR denies the exposures were significant.

In fact, sodium dichromate is listed as a known human carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the U.S. National Toxicology Program (a joint program of DHHS and the U.S. Public Health Service), and numerous other medical and regulatory bodies. It is also listed as an EPA hazardous air pollutant and by California as a known reproductive toxicant.

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