Death By (Power) Surge in Baghdad


At first it seemed outrageous.  Then the reader put it in perspective.  It wasn’t that big a deal.  This is a war that has cost millions of Iraqi lives and more than 4000 American lives.  This most recent disclosure involves only 13 American  deaths and they were not killed because of enemy fire, landmines, defective or inadequate body armor or humvees that were inadequately protected. These were deaths that were caused by a surge.  Not the surge of which George Bush was so proud but an electrical surge that was not planned and in a well managed war would never have happened.  The reports of the deaths were almost unnoticed and might still languish in the graveyard of Bush mistakes alongside the corpses he helped create, were it not for the death of Sgt. Ryan D. Maseth.

In January of this year Sgt. Maseth was taking a shower on his base in Baghdad and was electrocuted because of defective electrical wiring.  At first the army explained to Sgt. Maseth’s mother that her son had an electrical appliance with him in the shower that caused his electrocution. That, as so much else associated with this war is, was a lie. He was electrocuted because a water pump in the building was not properly grounded and when the shower was turned on Sgt. Maseth was electrocuted.  Sgt. Lambeth was not the first person to be electrocuted. According to Pentagon documents more than 12 other people have been electrocuted and many more injured by electrical shocks. In one barracks there were almost daily reports of its inhabitants receiving electrical shocks.      

According to the New York Times an Army survey of February 2007 noted “a safety threat theater-wide created by the poor-quality electrical fixtures procured and installed, sometimes incorrectly, thus resulting in a significant number of fires.” In early July of this year an electrical fire resulted in the destruction of 10 buildings.   

The first thing one is tempted to do when learning of something like this is to assume it is KBR’s fault. That is because KBR is the poster child for what went wrong with private contractors in Iraq.  Among other things, it charged for food it did not serve the troops, it failed to build a pipeline for which it was paid $75.7 million and failed to deliver safe water for hygiene uses.  (Some people may wonder how one company can get so much wrong.  The answer is since the war began it has been paid more than $24 billion and has 40,000 employees in Iraq.  That affords it lots of opportunity to perform incompetently and it has taken advantage of many of them. More are coming its way.  KBR was recently awarded a part of a $150 billion contract for restoring the oil fields in Iraq.  It will develop the southern oil fields while two other companies, one of which, Parsons, that has had its own share of shoddy performance, will develop those in the North.)  

It would not be fair to blame KBR for Sgt. Maseth’s death just because it was responsible for the Radwaniya Palace Complex (RPC) where Sgt. Maseth died.   That is because it is not required to act prophilactically.  Reporting on the RPC electrocution, CNN reported that KBR said its contract did not cover “fixing potential hazards.”  It was only required to fix things after they broke down.  KBR and the Pentagon would probably agree that a shower that electrocutes the bather is a shower that has broken down but the only way that can be discovered is after someone has been electrocuted. Heather Browne, a KBR spokeswoman, said the company found no link between its work and the electrocutions.   As is sometimes the case when KBR explains what happens, not everyone agrees with its self-analysis.

Ingrid Harrison, an official with the Pentagon’s contracting management agency was quoted in the Times as saying:  “KBR has been at R.P.C. for over four years and was fully aware of the safety hazards, violations and concerns regarding the soldiers’ housing.” KBR, said she,  “chose to ignore the known unsafe conditions.”  Electricians who were formerly employed by KBR said their repeated warnings to their superiors as well as to military personnel about unsafe electrical conditions were ignored.

That probably explains why 283 electrical fires took place between August 2006 and January 2007.  There should be fewer in the future.  According to the New York Times, “senior army officials have ordered electrical inspection of all buildings in Iraq maintained by KBR. Chris Isleib, a spokesman for the Pentagon said:  “We consider this to be a very serious issue.”  He got that right.  KBR, as usual, got it wrong.  It won’t affect its shareholders–only the soldiers who have died or been injured and the taxpayer who pays the company for its incompetence.

CHRISTOPHER BRAUCHLI is a lawyer living in Boulder, Colorado. He can be reached at:  Brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu  



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