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Lawsuit claims unsafe working conditions in Iraq

TAMPA—Patricia Howard wanted to earn good money and serve her country. An Army reservist, she took a job with a Tampa-based company that dismantles explosives. She followed that company to war-torn Iraq.

Now she's suing USA Environmental in U.S. District Court, alleging its managers broke with company policy and federal law by exposing her to a hazard:

Pigeon droppings.

The 2006 lawsuit, sealed until recently under the Whistleblower Act, asks for a portion of the $120-million USA Environmental earned through a contract with the government. Under the False Claims Act, the government also could recoup 70 to 80 percent of the money.

"You had to be aware of your surroundings to be safe,'' said Howard, 39, who now lives in New York. "Going overseas to a war area, you accept that risk as well. ... The risk I did not accept was the one they felt they could expose us to."

• • •

Howard joined the Army Reserves in 1994. She went through basic training and advanced basic training to learn how to handle high-explosive ammunition.

Her skills were in demand in Iraq, where hundreds of tons of ammunition are stored in warehouses — firepower for insurgents building explosive devices.

Howard's unit was on standby to deploy to Iraq in 2003 when she found out about contracting there. She signed up to work for USA Environmental and was sent to Iraq in January 2004 as an ammunition handler. She was to help dispose of 100 tons of explosives daily. After a few months, she was promoted to supervisor.

Though the job was dangerous, Howard found a greater risk in the unsanitary work conditions.

Thousands of pounds of aviary excrement covered the floors of more than 80 gymnasium-sized warehouses, she claims in her lawsuit.

American and Iraqi workers labored in the sites where for years birds nested, defecated and died, leaving the combination to fester in the dry desert heat.

"It was like snow. You could shovel it," Howard said. "It is blowing around like dust, almost like baby powder and you are breathing this in."

Howard says the white powder covered her. She alleges that USA Environmental did not follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, that the company knew how much bird waste was in the warehouses and had even created an "Airborne Animal Waste Control Plan."

John Chionchio, president for USA Environmental, declined to comment for this article, citing pending litigation.

• • •

Howard alleges that in March 2004, the Army found out some USA Environmental employees were being exposed to a Hantavirus and Cryptococcus neoformans, which can both be found around bird droppings and can be fatal.

A month later USA Environmental developed the plan, which called for washing facilities, decontamination areas and protective equipment, including jumpsuits and respirators.

But Howard said while she was in Iraq, the company handed out flimsy surgical-style face masks and asked for them back at the end of the day. They were stored in a bag with all the other workers' masks for use the next day.

Howard alleges that when she asked to revisit the pigeon policy at a safety meeting in February 2005, supervisors said it was not necessary to install decontamination centers and provide other safety equipment unless the worker had AIDS or a compromised immune system.

She was told not to question the lack of safety equipment. There was a lot of work to do and it would take too much time to set up the decontamination stations and provide enough clean water.

The lawsuit quotes a depot manager urging Howard not to cause problems.

The next day, the lawsuit says, another supervisor lunged at her after another safety meeting. A safety officer allegedly warned Howard, "we'll all lose our jobs.''

Later that day, washing facilities, limited jumpsuits and newer surgical-style face masks were provided. Howard says she was told not to go to work in the warehouses. Two days later she resigned, she said, fearing retribution.

"For the first time I really felt a threat and it was a threat I was not willing to take," Howard said in a telephone interview. "I was not going to get killed for someone trying to cover up their own corruption."

Howard works today in human resources for a corrugated container company. She visited a doctor after returning from Iraq. The examination found no problems, but there is no way of knowing if she will become ill later.

Her attorney, Alan Grayson, has represented other cases against government contractors working in Iraq.

"The amount of inattention to people's safety here verges on murder," he said. "The company pretended to deal with it and deceived the government and its own employees."

Jared Leone can be reached at (813) 269-5314 or jleone@sptimes.com.

Lawsuit claims unsafe working conditions in Iraq 09/14/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, September 17, 2008 5:49pm]
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