Chemical weapon stockpile destroyed at Oregon's Umatilla site
For nearly 50 years, it was the deathtrap next door: 3,717 tons of nerve gas and blister agent, a big part of America's chemical weapons arsenal, stored at a depot near the little town of Hermiston, Ore.
On the last Tuesday of every month, 76 large sirens mounted on 50-foot poles across three counties would emit a blast of sweet-sounding Westminster chimes, followed by a reassurance that this was only a drill -- if not, a loud blare would have sounded instead and residents would have known that a plume of some of the deadliest poison on Earth was headed their way.
On Tuesday, the sirens sounded for the last time -- only hours after the final chemical agents there were destroyed. The end of the three-year disposal effort marked one of the closing chapters for the United States' once-massive buildup of weapons of mass destruction.
The last ton of mustard agent at Umatilla was successfully torched at 9:17 a.m., leaving the U.S. with just three of nine original chemical weapons storage sites, the last of which is scheduled for full disposal by 2023. Even deadlier caches of VX and sarin nerve agent were destroyed earlier at the northern Oregon facility.
“It’s a great thing for a community to have that hazard gone, and we can have one less thing to worry about,” Jodi Florence of the Umatilla County Emergency Management Agency, part of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness program, said in an interview.
“Today, the employees of the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility made their mark on history by completing agent destruction operations,” Gary Anderson, site project manager, said in a statement. “More than 1,000 dedicated Army and contractor employees have made Oregon safer for its citizens.”
Umatilla had sheltered 12% of the nation's original chemical arsenal since 1962. But with the end of the Cold War and a 1993 international convention outlawing the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, work to destroy the deadly agents began in 2004.
An inherently difficult job
It was a formidable task. With liquid poisons loaded into rockets, bombs, warheads, artillery shells and mines, designed to vaporize when exploded, engineers had to design an incineration facility that wouldn't be as dangerous as the weapons themselves.
Even a drop or two of some deadly nerve agents on the skin can produce a quick, miserable death.
Disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Portland, Seattle or Spokane. Most of the deaths in any accident, though, were forecast to occur in the small towns of northern Oregon and southern Washington that surround the facility and have depended on it for about 1,300 well-paying jobs.
The deadline under the international convention for destroying stockpiles is 2012, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks propelled the Army into a different kind of urgency, with the storage depots around the country potentially inviting targets for attack or plunder.
Various technologies were studied, with the Army settling on a controversial process of incineration in furnaces capable of reaching 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to rapidly destroy the poisons, with slightly less intense furnaces to melt their metal containers with little danger of release.
A number of organizations, including the Sierra Club and the Chemical Weapons Working Group, tried mightily through the courts to halt the incineration program, conducted at sites in Alabama, Arkansas, Utah and Oregon (some other depots used a less controversial water-neutralization disposal method).
Efforts to halt destruction
They argued that tiny amounts of hazardous dioxin, furan, mercury and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons could be released through the smokestacks during incineration, leading possibly to low-level exposures hazardous to those nearby who ate from their gardens or fed children with breast milk.
Bob Palzer, chemical weapons coordinator for the Sierra Club in Oregon, said very little monitoring for emissions other than chemical agents was conducted.
“The kinds of monitoring they did at the site wouldn't detect releases [of other materials] in a timely manner. They were looking specifically for agent, but in fact there would be other compounds that were virtually as hazardous, and there was not monitoring done for that,” Palzer said in an interview.
Army officials countered that extensive studies had shown the operations would pose “no significant human health impacts.”
The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality in its own risk assessment pointed out that the likelihood of cancer-causing exposures would be limited to an area immediately next to the incinerator site, where no one lived. Outside the depot fence, “there should not be any adverse health effects,” the assessment concluded.
A federal judge in 2009 concurred.
The project did have problems as it unfolded. A worker was exposed to a small amount of mustard blister agent in 2010 and developed a blister on his hip, even though he was wearing protective rubber gear. That incident prompted retraining of workers at the facility.
In September 1999, about 30 construction workers building the incineration plant were overcome by apparent exposure to an unknown substance. They argued unsuccessfully in a subsequent lawsuit that the substance was one of the chemical weapons agents.
Mostly, though, people lived with the ever-present, though very unlikely, possibility of a doomsday scenario -- a plume of nerve gas wafting toward town.
Facing the risk
The warning sirens were designed for that possibility. Nearby residents were also equipped with tone-alert radios to provide warning and updates in the event of a release. Many homes had large plastic sheets and duct tape to seal their homes if the day came.
“Sheltering in place simply means going into your home, shutting doors and windows, shutting off fans and any kind of air system that would bring outside air into your home, and just staying put until the emergency has passed,” Florence said.
Nobody ever needed them.
In the end, the warning sirens never got beyond the soothing Big Ben test chimes and the subsequent reassurance.
“Chemical weapons have been safely and successfully stored here for right at 49 years. It's been a long history, and for a number of the folks in the community, several generations of their families have been employed here at the depot,” Michael Fletcher, spokesman for Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, said in an interview.
“So we're talking about satisfaction at a job well done, and they're realizing that in making the nation safer, they've worked themselves out of a job.”
-- Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: A chemical operations crew from the Umatilla Chemical Depot separates a rocket motor and the warhead section on one of nine M55 rockets sent to an Army lab in New Jersey for analysis. Credit: U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency