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Senators Press Defense Secretary on KBR Litigation

Three Senators want answers from the Pentagon about a long-running legal battle involving one of its largest contractors, KBR.

On Friday, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, and Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel asking about toxic tort lawsuits filed by National Guard soldiers claiming KBR exposed them to cancer-causing chemicals at the Qarmat Ali water treatment plant in Iraq in 2003.

In 2012, a group of Oregon National Guardsmen won $81 million in damages after a federal jury found that KBR had “acted with reckless and outrageous indifference” to the plaintiffs’ health, safety, and welfare. They have yet to receive a penny, however, because KBR immediately filed an appeal. National Guard soldiers from other states filed a similar lawsuit that is currently mired in pre-trial wrangling.

Meanwhile, KBR took the government to court to recover its legal expenses and damages incurred in the Qarmat Ali litigation—potentially hundreds of millions of dollars—pursuant to an indemnification provision tucked into its contract. That particular spat began in November 2011, when the U.S. Army turned down KBR’s indemnification request.

“We want to be clear that we are not asking the DoD [Department of Defense] to choose sides in an ongoing legal matter,” the Senators wrote in the letter. “We are, however, urging the DoD to exercise its right under the contract to take control of the litigation process and move toward an equitable solution for all parties.” The Senators posed several questions to Hagel about DoD’s planned course of action regarding the Qarmat Ali lawsuits, how much KBR is currently claiming for reimbursement, and how much the lawsuits will ultimately cost taxpayers.

You might recall that two years ago, Senator Wyden posed similar questions to Hagel’s predecessor, Leon Panetta. The Senators told Hagel that then-Secretary of Defense Panetta’s response “was disappointing,” and that they hoped Hagel “will offer more satisfying answers.”

Justice delayed is justice denied. Many of the National Guard plaintiffs are in poor health. We applaud the effort of these three Senators to bring about a speedy resolution of the lawsuits.