By John Raby Associated Press Writer
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — The West Virginia National Guard is still trying to locate about 25 troops who may have been exposed six years ago to a toxic chemical at an Iraqi water treatment plant, a Guard spokesman said Monday.
The Guard was notified in November that as many as 150 members were in the Basra area and were potentially exposed to hexavalent chromium in 2003. Lt. Col. Mike Cadle said that number has since been narrowed to about 125.
About one-third of the troops are still with the Guard and contacting them was simple. But those no longer active members aren't required to maintain contact and Cadle says efforts to reach them have proven difficult.
The Guard wants the soldiers to get health screenings through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
"We want people to know. That's the goal, whether they were exposed long term, short term," Cadle said. "We just want people to know there's a potential and that they should get the appropriate assessment at the VA. Whether the outcome is somebody has an illness related to this or not, it's not the point."
A handful of letters from the latest notification effort were returned to the West Virginia Guard because the former members had moved and left no forwarding address.
"When we get those, we call people who may have known that person, (but) we want to make personal contact," Cadle said. "We don't want somebody to hear about it outside of the Guard."
A lawsuit filed in December by 16 Indiana National Guard soldiers against defense contractor KBR Inc. claims the troops now have respiratory system tumors associated with exposure at the site.
Hexavalent chromium, the chemical featured in the 2000 movie Erin Brockovich, is used to remove pipe corrosion and has been linked to lung cancer.
Cadle said the Guard plans to bring in some VA officials this month from Washington, D.C., to answer soldiers' questions.
"We're trying to reach out and do as much as we can to make sure people understand the situation," Cadle said.
Last month, two U.S. senators wrote to the Army and Defense Secretary Robert Gates saying Houston-based KBR allowed soldiers to be exposed to the chemical for more than two months in 2003 even though they say KBR knew the plant was contaminated.
The letter from Democratic U.S. Sens. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota and Evan Bayh of Indiana said KBR's Army contract for the Qarmat Ali plant appears to have included a risk assessment of the site, but that the company failed to detect "what we all now know to be significant quantities" of the chemical.
Bayh and Dorgan said Indiana National Guard troops based at the water plant only learned of their possible exposure after seeing KBR workers wearing special protective clothing. The senators also asked the Army to update them on efforts to alert soldiers with Guard units from Oregon and South Carolina that they may also have been exposed.
South Carolina National Guard spokesman Col. Pete Brooks said Monday that South Carolina had a unit of military police in the area who had driven by the plant, but did not go into it. About 18 months ago, the "handful of soldiers," went through a medical screening to see if they had any health problems.
"They didn't have to do anything beyond the initial screening," Brooks said.
KBR was responsible for restoring Iraq's oil infrastructure shortly after the March 2003 invasion by U.S. troops. The Qarmat Ali plant is needed to pump water into Iraq's southern oil reservoirs.
KBR has said it notified the Army Corps of Engineers upon discovery of the chemical at the plant site. It also said military officials had determined that the air at the plant did not contain dangerous levels of the chemical.