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KBR Must Face Guardsmen’s Toxic-Chromium Suit, Judge Says

KBR Inc. must face a trial on claims that it knowingly exposed U.S. troops to toxic chromium dust in 2003 while they were guarding a company work site in Iraq, a Houston judge ruled.

Dozens of U.S. national guardsmen from Indiana and West Virginia have sued the Houston-based military contractor over health problems they blame on exposure to hexavalent chromium dust, a carcinogenic orange-yellow powder used to fight corrosion in water pipes. The troops were guarding KBR workers as they tried to restore water treatment facilities at the Quarmat Ali oil production site.

KBR had argued the case couldn’t be tried without asking jurors to judge actions and decisions by the U.S. military, which is forbidden by law. U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore yesterday rejected that argument.

“Because KBR played a significant role in assessing and responding to the hazards, the issue of whether KBR caused plaintiffs’ injuries may be resolved without second-guessing the military’s decisions,’’ she said in a 15-page ruling. She said the case could be tried without evaluating military policies or “expressing a lack of respect for the military’s decisions.’’

Sarah Ui Mhuirgheasa, KBR’s spokeswoman, didn’t immediately respond to a call or e-mail requesting comment on the ruling.

“This is a very important step in uncovering what KBR has tried really hard to keep a lid on at Quarmat Ali,’’ Mike Doyle, lead attorney for the soldiers, said in a phone interview today. “Two soldiers have died, and all these men have health issues to some degree. They really want this evidence to come out.’’

He said jury selection could start in September.

The case is McManaway v KBR Inc., 4:10-cv-1044, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Houston).

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