Will Burn Pit Lawsuit Be Dismissed — Again?
More than seven hundred plaintiffs are waiting for U.S. District Court Judge Roger W. Titus to decide whether a lawsuit can continue against Houston-based defense contractor KBR Inc., former subsidiary of Halliburton. The company, which began managing waste operations in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003, ran burn pits designed to dispose of waste on U.S. bases in both countries. Emissions from each pit have been said to have plagued soldiers with debilitating diseases and even caused the death of some who fought in the vicinity of the burn operations.
The troops are worried that the judge could excuse the burn pit procedures because the disposal sites were established on behalf of the government. KBR Inc. has asked for the case to be dismissed, citing that the federal courts lack jurisdiction to rule on a military decision to use a burn pit, and as a military contractor, it should be protected from any litigation.
“It’s been a living hell, emotionally, financially and physically,” said Rosie Torres. Her husband, a former Army Reserve captain named LeRoy, was diagnosed with a debilitating, progressive lung disease after he returned home from Iraq. “It is the war that followed us home.”
Dina McKenna, was widowed after her 41-year-old husband, former Army Sergeant William McKenna, died in 2010 from a rare form of T-cell lymphoma following service in Iraq. “What do I want out of this lawsuit? I want the rules changed so soldiers don’t go through this again. I want to see money distributed to families who lost their homes…because their spouse suffered or is suffering,” McKenna said.
In a June 29th statement, KBR said its employees “safely and effectively at the direction and under control of the U.S. military” disposed of waste in the pits. The statement adds, “The government’s best scientific and expert opinions have repeatedly concluded there is no link between any long-term health issues and burn pit emissions.”
Those opposing KBR strongly disagree, saying that smoke from burning millions of pounds of trash caused acute and chronic health ailments to those working in and around the pits, which processed a variety of emissive materials including canvas, wood, paint, batteries, computers, fuel, plastic water bottles, animal carcasses and even human medical waste.
The plaintiffs claim to have suffered from everything from respiratory illnesses, to gastrointestinal disorders, neurological problems and some forms of cancer. Many have died since seeking legal action.
“It would be extremely sad if the case is dismissed,” Jilly Wilkins, whose husband, Air Force Major Kevin Wilkins, died in 2008 at age 51 of glioblastoma, said. “There are a lot of people looking for help from the [Department of Veterans Affairs] and not getting it.”
Titus dismissed the case once before, in 2013, when he agreed with KBR Inc. that military contractors should share the same immunity from litigation over war injuries that the U.S. government has. However, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Titus’s decision the following year, claiming more evidence was needed to make a final determination regarding immunity. KBR Inc. unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case in 2015, and it landed it back in Titus’ hands. He has not announced when a final decision will be issued.