Reports from some troops and company whistleblowers say Halliburton subsidiary KBR supplied contaminated water to military camps in Iraq. Living on Earth's Jeff Young talks with some soldiers who came home sick and wonder if it's from the dirty water.
CURWOOD: The Inspector General of the United States Army is probing allegations that a subsidiary of the Halliburton Corporation supplied contaminated water to U.S. troops in Iraq. A company whistleblower says errors in water treatment may have put thousands of soldiers at risk of waterborne diseases when they showered, shaved and brushed their teeth. And some troops have returned from Iraq with illnesses their doctors can’t diagnose. They want to know if there’s a connection. Living on Earth’s Jeff Young reports.
YOUNG: As an Army Captain, Matt Harrison served at camp Ar Ramadi near Iraq’s Sunni triangle. He got sick while he was there and still suffers a chronic gastrointestinal disorder. But what really makes him queasy is news that his illness may have come from contaminated water supplied by a military contractor.
HARRISON: It’s sickening to me. I can’t think of words to describe it because it’s so frustrating and upsetting. Especially to guys over there risking their lives day in day out.
YOUNG: Halliburton subsidiary KBR supplies water to Ramadi and other military camps in Iraq. Former KBR employee Ben Carter first noticed a problem with the water last March.
CARTER: It was coming from the Euphrates River. Which is highly contaminated. It absolutely needed to be chlorinated and filtered. I later found out that wasn’t being done, either, the filtration.
YOUNG: Carter fixed the problem at the camp for KBR employees and told his manager the military should be notified.
CARTER: She told me that the military was none of my concern and I was only to take care of the KBR man camp. That was shocking to me. I knew I had to make a decision shortly on whether I was willing to keep my mouth shut and accept a paycheck in exchange for knowing that the soldiers I thought I was there to help were gonna be at risk daily.
YOUNG: Carter quit and brought his complaint to a hearing of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. The Committee also received an email from Army Captain Michele Callahan, a brigade surgeon at Ar Ramadi.
In January, Captain Callahan writes, she saw an increase in soldiers with bacterial infections, including skin abscesses and conjunctivitis. All the soldiers showered in the same area, and tests found the water contaminated with bacteria. Callahan had a colleague trace the water supply and found KBR used wastewater from a reverse osmosis treatment unit for the camp’s showers.
Tufts University Public Heath professor Jeffrey Griffiths told the committee that defies basic practice and common sense.
GRIFFITHS: In what appears to be a profound misunderstanding of the way a reverse osmosis unit works, this concentrated, untreated, polluted water was provided to soldiers for hygienic purposes that was highly likely to make them sick. They would have been better off with water directly out of the Euphrates River.
YOUNG: The committee also released an internal report by Halliburton employee Will Granger, who investigated Carter’s original complaint. Granger concluded there was no disinfection and no way of knowing how many troops had been exposed to potentially harmful water. Granger called it quote “a near miss. The consequences could have resulted in mass sickness or death.”
Halliburton declined to participate in the hearing and a company public relations officer declined to be interviewed for this story, referring instead to a press release on the company’s web site and a report disputing Granger’s findings. North Dakota Democratic Byron Dorgan criticized the company’s response.
DORGAN: I’m surprised that the company we’re paying seems to be producing reports to undermine its own employee’s conclusions, and seems to be producing reports that are at odds with the conclusions of an army physician who’s on the scene, on the ground, in Iraq.
YOUNG: Without full disclosure from the company it’s difficult to determine what illnesses might have resulted. There are many ways to get sick in Iraq. A study by the Association of Military Surgeons found nine percent of all soldiers evacuated from Iraq suffered digestive problems. Former Marine Todd Bowers says stomach ailments were common in his unit.
BOWERS: Everybody got it. I have some funny videos of all of us crawling around on the ground when we were very, very ill. So it happened on a regular occurrence.
YOUNG: It was not so funny when Bowers returned stateside still so sick he went to the hospital. He thinks it’s possible he used water supplied by KBR, and it’s put a fire in his belly, you might say, to learn more. Bowers is out of the military now and works for a nonprofit called Project on Government Oversight. His job there is to investigate KBR’s water contract.
BOWERS: What was the quality of water, the quantity, how was it transported, every little detail can have an effect on troops over there, how their health is.
YOUNG: Former KBR employee Ben Carter also came home sick. He also thinks it’s from the tainted water, and he’s trying to get workers’ compensation from the company. Carter says he and the soldiers deserve more information.
CARTER: They owe them that, at least. We’re supposed to be supporting the troops. And the last thing they need after being out on patrol all day is to be attacked by water borne pathogens.
YOUNG: The group Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America hopes to find sick soldiers and get them information that might be useful in diagnosis and treatment. And the Army wants more information, too. Its Inspector General says an audit of the KBR contract will be a high priority. For Living on Earth, I’m Jeff Young in Washington.
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