Lawmakers on Wednesday pressed officials from the Pentagon and KBR Inc. to explain what has delayed the proper protection of U.S. forces in Iraq from deficient electrical work already being blamed for the deaths of at least 16 people.
“There was no shortage of warnings about the electrical dangers in Iraq, just a shortage of will to do right by our troops,” said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Though pervasive electrical deficiencies in facilities in Iraq have been widely acknowledged, little action has been taken by the Pentagon leadership or KBR, Waxman said during the hearing.
As of July 10, there have been 16 deaths — 10 soldiers, 5 Marines and a third-country contractor for the Defense Department — according to an interim Defense Department report obtained by The Associated Press in advance of the committee’s hearing.
The initial inspector general's report found no evidence that KBR or the Defense Contract Management Agency were aware of any life-threatening hazards at the Army barracks in Iraq where at least one U.S. soldier, Sgt. Ryan Maseth of Pittsburgh, was electrocuted.
KBR, which holds a multibillion-dollar contract to provide basic services including food and shelter for U.S. soldiers, also has repeatedly said it has “found no evidence of a link between the work” it was tasked to perform and the reported deaths.
But Waxman pressed Gordon Heddell, the Pentagon’s inspector general, on whether the agency had absolved the Houston-based company and the DCMA of any involvement in Maseth’s death. Heddell defended the agency’s initial findings saying his office has not fully cleared both parties, and that a final report would be released shortly.
The interim report found that an ungrounded water pump on the roof of Maseth’s barracks failed and electrified the water pipes. A circuit breaker also failed because tar from roof repairs appeared to have leaked into the panel.
Waxman asked Heddell if his office had failed to ask for the right documents, or whether the information was withheld from the agency, because documents obtained by the committee “appear to contradict the inspector general’s findings.”
Those documents include a 2004 report by the U.S. Army Safety Center that warned commanders they “must require contractors to properly ground electrical systems,” and a February 2007 report by the DCMA, which detailed 283 fires at facilities maintained by KBR during the five-month period ending in January 2007.
Heddell said he “was not aware” of the documents until they were brought to his attention by the committee Tuesday night. “They are certainly very dramatic, and certainly are documents that we will have to spend a lot of time looking at,” he said.
Maseth’s mother Cheryl Harris, who attended the hearing as a guest of Waxman, has filed a lawsuit in Pennsylvania against KBR over her son’s death.
Her attorney Patrick Cavanaugh said the new documents, including a work order that suggests KBR employees installed the water pump implicated in Maseth’s electrocution, contradict the inspector general’s initial conclusions that the company was not at fault.
“I think today’s hearing negates the report and I wouldn’t be surprise to see a subsequent report written that had a different conclusion,” Cavanaugh said.
Rep. Thomas Davis, R-Va., the committee’s ranking member, and Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., repeatedly asked the panel who was responsible for the lapse of contract oversight that led to the electrocutions.
Tom Bruni, theater engineering and construction manager at KBR, said the company didn’t perform maintenance, repairs or make upgrades at any of the facilities without direction from the military based on the terms of its contract.
Jeffrey Parsons, executive director of the Army Contracting Command, said he would submit responses to the committee on the chain of command being used to order work done on the barracks in Iraq.