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U.S. jury awards troops $85 million over Iraq chemical exposure

By Teresa Carson

PORTLAND, Oregon (Reuters) - An Oregon jury awarded 12 Army National Guardsmen $85 million in damages from defense contractor KBR Inc. on Friday after finding that the company failed to protect them from exposure to cancer-causing chemicals when they served in Iraq.

Each Guard soldier was awarded $850,000 in non-economic damages and another $6.25 million in punitive damages for "reckless and outrageous indifference" to their health in the trial in U.S. District Court in Portland.

"Justice was definitely served for the 12 of us," Guardsman Rocky Bixby said, adding that two of his children were about to enter the military. "It wasn't about the money, it was about them never doing this again to another soldier."

The Oregon Guardsmen were providing security for civilian workers restoring an oil industry water plant in 2003 in southern Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. The plant water was used to push oil to the surface.

The plant was contaminated with sodium dichromate, a chemical used to fight corrosion. Sodium dichromate contains hexavalent chromium, the toxic chemical made famous in the film "Erin Brockovich" starring Julia Roberts.

The chemical was blowing around the plant known as Qarmat Ali, the soldiers' lawyers told the court.

Geoffrey Harrison, lead trial attorney for KBR, said the contractor would appeal.

"We believe the trial court should have dismissed the case before trial," he said. "KBR did safe and exceptional work in Iraq under difficult circumstances, and we believe the facts and law ultimately will provide vindication."

The soldiers had also claimed that KBR committed fraud, but jurors rejected that claim.

The 12 Guardsmen in the suit have suffered various illnesses and disabilities and are at risk for various kinds of cancer, their lawyers said. Hexavalent chromium is "a highly potent carcinogen," they said.

Another 22 Oregon soldiers or their widows have sued KBR Inc. in Portland. More than 100 soldiers from other states have sued the company in Houston, where the company is based.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb, Cynthia Johnston, Doina Chiacu)

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