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IRAQ: Despite Alert, Flawed Wiring Still Kills G.I.’s


by JAMES RISENThe New York Times
May 4th, 2008


WASHINGTON — In October 2004, the United States Army issued an urgent bulletin to commanders across Iraq, warning them of a deadly new threat to American soldiers. Because of flawed electrical work by contractors, the bulletin stated, soldiers at American bases in Iraq had received severe electrical shocks, and some had even been electrocuted.

The bulletin, with the headline “The Unexpected Killer,” was issued after the horrific deaths of two soldiers who were caught in water — one in a shower, the other in a swimming pool — that was suddenly electrified after poorly grounded wiring short-circuited.

“We’ve had several shocks in showers and near misses here in Baghdad, as well as in other parts of the country,” Frank Trent, an expert with the Army Corps of Engineers, wrote in the bulletin. “As we install temporary and permanent power on our projects, we must ensure that we require contractors to properly ground electrical systems.”

Since that warning, at least two more American soldiers have been electrocuted in similar circumstances. In all, at least a dozen American military personnel have been electrocuted in Iraq, according to the Pentagon and Congressional investigators.

While several deaths have been attributed to inadvertent contact with power lines under battlefield conditions, the Army bulletin said that five deaths over the preceding year had apparently been caused by faulty grounding, and the circumstances of others have not been fully explained by the Army. Many more soldiers have been injured by shocks, Pentagon officials and soldiers say.

The accidental deaths and close calls, which are being investigated by Congress and the Defense Department’s inspector general, raise new questions about the oversight of contractors in the war zone, where unjustified killings by security guards, shoddy reconstruction projects and fraud involving military supplies have spurred previous inquiries.

American electricians who worked for KBR, the Houston-based defense contractor that is responsible for maintaining American bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, said they repeatedly warned company managers and military officials about unsafe electrical work, which was often performed by poorly trained Iraqis and Afghans paid just a few dollars a day.

One electrician warned his KBR bosses in his 2005 letter of resignation that unsafe electrical work was “a disaster waiting to happen.” Another said he witnessed an American soldier in Afghanistan receiving a potentially lethal shock. A third provided e-mail messages and other documents showing that he had complained to KBR and the government that logs were created to make it appear that nonexistent electrical safety systems were properly functioning.

KBR itself told the Pentagon in early 2007 about unsafe electrical wiring at a base near the Baghdad airport, but no repairs were made. Less than a year later, a soldier was electrocuted in a shower there.

“I don’t feel like they did their job,” Carmen Nolasco Duran of La Puente, Calif., said of Pentagon officials. Her brother, Specialist Marcos O. Nolasco, was electrocuted at a base in Baiji in May 2004 while showering. “They hired these contractors and yet they didn’t go and double-check that the work was fine.”

The Defense Contract Management Agency, which is responsible for supervising maintenance work by contractors at American bases in Iraq, defended its performance. In a written statement, the agency said it had no information that staff members “were aware” of the Army alert or “failed to take appropriate action in response to unsafe conditions brought to our attention.”

Keith Ernst, who stepped down Wednesday as the agency’s director, said, though, that the agency was “stretched too thin” in Iraq and that the small number of contract officers did not have expertise in dealing with so-called life support contracts, like that awarded to KBR to provide food, shelter and building maintenance. “We don’t have the technical capability for overseeing life support systems,” he said.

For its part, KBR, which until last year was known as Kellogg, Brown and Root and was a subsidiary of Halliburton, denied that any lapses by the company had led to the electrocutions of American soldiers. “KBR’s commitment to employee safety and the safety of those the company serves is unwavering,” said a spokeswoman, Heather Browne. “KBR has found no evidence of a link between the work it has been tasked to perform and the reported electrocutions.”

Ms. Browne declined to respond to the specific accounts of former KBR electricians.

Those electricians have a ready response to anyone who suggests that poor electrical work might be considered an unavoidable cost of war. “The excuse KBR always used was, ‘This is a war zone — what do you expect?’ ” recalled Jeffrey Bliss, an Ohio electrician who worked for the company in Afghanistan in 2005 and 2006. “But if you are going to do the work, you have got to do it safe.”

Since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, tens of thousands of American troops have been housed in pre-existing Iraqi government buildings, some of them dangerously dilapidated. As part of its $30 billion contract with the Pentagon in Iraq, KBR was required to repair and upgrade many of the buildings, including their electrical systems. The company handles maintenance for 4,000 structures and 35,000 containerized housing units in the war zone, the Pentagon said.

Lawmakers and government investigators say it is now clear that the Bush administration outsourced so much work to KBR and other contractors in Iraq that the agencies charged with oversight have been overwhelmed. The Defense Contracting Management Agency has more than 9,000 employees, but it has only 60 contract officers in Iraq and 30 in Afghanistan to supervise nearly 18,000 KBR employees in Iraq and 4,400 in Afghanistan handling base maintenance.

“All the contract officers can do is check the paperwork,” said one agency official, who asked not to be identified. While about 600 military officers supplement the contract officers, Mr. Ernst said, the soldiers are not adequately trained for the task.

The Army has provided little detailed information about the electrocutions, other than to say late Friday that 10 soldiers had been electrocuted in Iraq. A House panel has also reported that two marines died similarly.

In the civilian work force, about 250 workers died from electrocution in the United States in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

According to the Army warning bulletin, two deaths occurred 10 days apart in May 2004 at different bases in northern Iraq.

Staff Sgt. Christopher L. Everett, 23, of the Texas National Guard was electrocuted in September 2005 while power-washing a Humvee at Camp Taqaddum, in central Iraq near Falluja. His mother, Larraine McGee said Army officials had told her that the equipment he was using was connected to a generator that was not properly grounded, and that soldiers had previously complained of shocks.

“We were told that as a result of his death all the generators were being repaired and that it wouldn’t happen again,” Ms. McGee said. “But if it is still going on, something’s not right.”

The most recent fatality occurred on Jan. 2 in Baghdad, when Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth, a Green Beret, died in a shower after an improperly grounded water pump short-circuited.

Nearly a year earlier, KBR issued a technical report to the contracting agency citing safety concerns related to the grounding and wiring in the building in the Radwaniyah Palace Complex, where Sergeant Maseth’s unit, the Army Fifth Special Forces Group, was housed.

Another soldier said in an interview that he was repeatedly shocked in the shower in December 2007 and submitted requests for repairs. But nothing was done until the day after Sergeant Maseth’s death, when the defense agency ordered KBR to correct the problem, according to Pentagon documents.

Cheryl Harris, Sergeant Maseth’s mother, said in an interview that the Army initially told her that her son had taken an electrical appliance into the shower with him. Later, she said, officials told her that investigators had found electrical wires hanging down around the shower. She said she had been skeptical of both accounts and learned the truth only after repeatedly questioning Army officials.

Her family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against KBR, the only such claim brought in any of the electrical deaths.

“I knew Ryan would not get into a shower with an electrical appliance, and having wires hanging overhead didn’t make sense,” said Ms. Harris, of Cranberry Township, Pa. “My biggest question is really, why would KBR do a safety inspection, know about the electrical problems and not alert the troops?”

Long before Sergeant Maseth’s death, KBR electricians were complaining about the dangers of unsafe electrical work at bases.

In 2006, John McLain was working as a KBR electrician at the United States regional embassy compound in Hilla, south of Baghdad, when he made a disturbing discovery. A KBR quality control inspector had recently cited employees there for failing to file quarterly ground resistance testing logs — reports on whether the wiring in the upgraded embassy building was properly grounded and safe.

Mr. McLain soon realized that the testing was not being conducted, because the building had never been grounded, though KBR and at least one Iraqi subcontractor were supposed to install proper safeguards during a renovation the previous year. Mr. McLain said he had sent a series of increasingly blunt memos and e-mail warnings about the safety hazards to KBR officials.

Mr. McLain said other KBR electricians later created logs that incorrectly made it appear that the grounding system existed. KBR fired him in 2007 after he told a visiting defense contracting agency official about his concerns. His candor proved useless, however. Mr. McLain said that the contracting agency official showed no interest. “He said, ‘I’m not an electrician; I don’t know what you are talking about,’ ”Mr. McLain recalled.

Noris Rogers, who worked for KBR in Afghanistan in 2005, said he repeatedly complained to his supervisors that electrical work at Camp Eggers, the American military’s command base in Kabul, Afghanistan, did not meet the requirements of the company’s Pentagon contract.

Mr. Bliss, who saw a soldier in Qalat, Afghanistan, get a severe shock from an electrical box that was not supposed to be charged, said his KBR bosses mocked him for raising safety issues. They were “not giving the Army what it needed,” he said, “and not giving the soldiers what they deserved.”





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