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The Nerve Gas Next Door


Date: Mon, 15 Mar 1999
From: Wendy Tanowitz
Subject: umatilla chemical weapons depot & y2k

Tom, Here are several articles on Umatilla. If the ventilation system fails because of (1) loss of power from the grid; (2) failure of the ventilation system itself because of Y2K problems; (3) loss of telecommunications; or (4) some other reason -- imagine the consequences. Umatilla is one of several chemical weapons depots throughout the country. It's located in northeastern Oregon, east and slightly south Hanford.


The Seattle Times Local News
Copyright © 1997
The Seattle Times Company Sunday, April 13, 1997
The nerve gas next door
by Alex Tizon Seattle Times staff reporter

HERMISTON, Ore. -- Even the most uninformed people around here knew something was afoot when the sirens began appearing on the horizon.

They were like no sirens that anybody in this high-desert corner of the state had ever seen: gigantic, fluted, metallic-black cylinders mounted on 50-foot poles. When the workers were finished, 42 of them, 10 miles apart, marked the landscape in two counties. They were put there, the US Army said, just in case the unthinkable happened.

On May 1, at the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot six miles away, workers will break ground for a massive $567 million incinerator intended to destroy some of the deadliest remnants of the Cold War: 220,000 rockets, bombs and projectiles loaded with the most lethal poisons on Earth. The collection makes up one of the largest chemical-weapon stockpiles in the country, containing enough toxic agent, in terms of sheer volume, to kill tens of millions of people.

Congress has ordered all the weapons destroyed, a complex process that will take until 2005. For many, it's a frightening prospect. The Army has dutifully studied dozens of accident scenarios that include the potential for release of lethal poisons into the air. Fatality projections range from zero to more than 20,000. The scenarios range from the credible, such as a forklift accident, to the far-fetched, such as a fully fueled jumbo jet plunging into the depot. In the very worst-case scenario, the one Army brass fear most -- a powerful earthquake followed by fire -- a plume of chemical residue could reach as far as Seattle, Portland or Spokane.

Closer to the depot are the Tri-Cities to the north and Pendleton to the southeast, a region within a 35-mile radius of the depot with a population of more than 150,000. If the unthinkable happened, most of the deaths would probably occur in the small farming towns within a 20-mile radius of the depot, towns such as Hermiston, Boardman, Umatilla and Irrigon. The Army calls this region the Protective Action Zone. Opponents of the incinerator call it "the kill zone."

It is here that the Army is preparing for the worst. So far, the Army has spent $42 million gearing up this area into a kind of military state of alert. The sirens are only one part of a public-warning system that will include three emergency command centers, electronic highway signs and special emergency-frequency radios that will be placed in 18,000 households.

Eleven schools, a hospital and a nursing home are being sealed and retrofitted for pressurized ventilation systems to keep gas out. There's even talk among state disaster officials of providing custom-fitted gas masks to every resident in the area.

The Army has also launched an aggressive public-education campaign -- community meetings, school presentations, a full-time outreach office -- to inform locals about the realities of chemical weapons and to offer instructions on how to jerry-build a shelter at home.

An Army survey a few years ago revealed a startlingly uninformed public. The survey found that more than half of local residents didn't even know an Army facility was nearby. That has changed. Today, one can walk into any local tavern and enter into a lengthy discussion, or a fight, about the pros and cons of incineration. The debate is hot around here. At the core of the apprehensions, and in the backdrop of all the arguments, is the reality of the horrifying potency of the chemical agents.

How deadly?

A tenth of one drop of VX nerve agent on skin can kill a person in minutes. The Umatilla Chemical Depot holds a total of 3,717 tons of such agents. Enough to make even the steeliest, plow-hardened farmer in these parts just a little spooked.

David and Debbie Burns of Irrigon are thinking of leaving the 5,600-square-foot "dream house" they have spent the last decade designing and building. The house sits on the bank of the Columbia River, 10 miles from the weapons depot, well within what they consider a high-risk zone. "We put our whole life savings into this house -- half a million dollars," said David Burns, a cabinetmaker. "Our intent was to live in it the rest of our lives. But if this thing (the incinerator) moves forward, we are definitely moving."

The couple is part of a small group of area citizens who have passionately opposed the incinerator from the time it was first proposed in the mid-1980s. Many of its members consider themselves forgotten "Downwinders," people on the Oregon side who say they like their better-known counterparts in Washington -- suffer the effects of radioactive releases from the Hanford Nuclear Reservation 45 miles to the north. The releases, which the U.S. government acknowledged only 10 years ago, were heaviest from 1944 to 1972. That the Department of Energy has not acknowledged a link between Hanford and the Downwinders' illnesses has only deepened the mistrust of the government.

Similar battles over incineration have broken out in all eight of the chemical weapons stockpile sites in the U.S., with the same pattern: local citizens backed by environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club vs. the U.S. Army backed by all the key federal agencies.

The arguments boil down this way: Citizen groups say incineration would release tiny amounts of highly toxic gases into the air over a long period of time, and no one knows the long-term effects on humans and crops. They say the Army should investigate alternative methods that don't involve smokestack emissions, methods such as neutralization, which uses neutralizing chemicals to detoxify poison gases.

The Army argues that its incinerator will burn lethal chemical agents so effectively that the smokestack emissions will be cleaner than the region's normal dust-filled air. Besides, it would take a decade to develop a neutralization technology, which would be too long to wait. The munitions at the depot are at least 30 years old, and many have become unstable, the Army says.

Waiting invites disaster

Already, inspectors at Umatilla have found more than 100 rockets and projectiles leaking poison chemicals. The longer the wait, the higher the chances of one of the rockets self-igniting, possibly setting off a catastrophic chain reaction. Waiting also invites other kinds of disasters, natural or otherwise. Navy A-6 bombers conduct practice runs only 20 miles to the west. Opponents, who argue the air space around Umatilla should be closed, are nervous that one of the bombers could crash into the depot.

In 1893, a major earthquake, estimated at magnitude 7, hit the area, and a major tremor struck Milton-Freewater, 55 miles east, as recently as 1936. The Army estimates there is a 10 percent chance another major quake will hit the region in the next 50 years.

Stuart Dick, an ordained minister who used to live in Hermiston, finds the Army's position more than a little disingenuous. Dick has moved his family to La Grande, 90 miles and one mountain range away.

"When news first got out in the 1970s that there were chemical weapons at the depot, the commander and everybody out there was saying, `These are safe. They are no more dangerous than the other munitions.' I have the newspaper clippings," Dick said. "For 20 years, they've been saying it's safe, and now that it's politically expedient to burn it, all of a sudden, bam, they're saying the weapons are so dangerous we need to get rid of them right now."

Barring legal challenges, construction of the incinerator will start this spring, with testing to begin in the year 2000, and actual burning to last through 2005 -- just in time to meet the congressional deadline. The Army says the whole process will cost $1.3 billion, but the General Accounting Office, the U.S. government watchdog agency, says the final figure will more likely be twice that amount. In either case, it would by far be the costliest cleanup in Oregon's history.

And in either case, the Burns family of Irrigon plans to follow Stuart Dick's footsteps and move out of the area. "How can you fight the U.S. Army?" Dick said. "Every time our scientists tell the truth, the Army gets 50 of their scientists to refute them. That's why I moved. I'm not fighting this any longer. It's a done deal."

"It won't hurt business" Greg Gallien, for one, thinks it's a good deal. His tavern in Irrigon sits on Division Street, which will be the main road leading to the depot's back entrance two miles away. "It's about time," Gallien said. "Let's get on with it."

Recent surveys show that a slight majority of locals approve of the incinerator, though the reasons may have to do mostly with economics. "It certainly won't hurt business," said Gallien, whose tavern is strategically placed to draw workers going in and out of the depot.

Up to 700 new jobs will be created by the incinerator project, and the Army will need 600 people to operate the plant. The Army estimates that up to 1,500 new people will come to the area in the next several years. Frank Harkenrider, the septuagenarian mayor of Hermiston, is lobbying the Army for $5 million in "impact money" -- funds to build new roads and water tanks to accommodate all the new people.

Weapons too horrible to use

Harkenrider was one of the few local residents around when the Army established the depot in 1941, six weeks before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Built on 20,000 acres of desert and sagebrush, the depot stored conventional bullets and bombs in its 1,001 earth-covered bunkers, which the Army calls "igloos."

>From a distance, the depot looks like a cemetery of primitive tombs stretching to the horizon. One of the igloos, indeed, became a tomb in March 1944, when a stash of conventional 500-pound bombs blew up, killing and burying six workers inside. The Army guessed it was a forklift accident. "I was at the theater that day," Harkenrider said. "The explosion broke windows in town."

The depot, employing 2,000 workers at the height of World War II, was a key supplier of munitions to Allied forces in the Pacific. Neither the Allies nor the Nazis used chemical weapons during the war, even though both sides had massive stockpiles ready. The prospect of using them and being subject to retaliation was too horrible to risk.

Both sides remembered clearly the first World War, during which poison gas claimed 91,000 lives and injured more than a million. Soldiers died when gas inflamed their lungs so severely that they filled with fluid; victims literally drowned on the battlefield. So shocking were the death scenes that world leaders signed a Geneva protocol outlawing the first use of such weapons but allowing retaliation.

All through the 1950s and '60s, the U.S. military manufactured chemical weapons as a deterrent against the Soviet chemical stockpile. Neither the U.S. nor the Soviets ever used the weapons, and both agreed at the 1990 Chemical Weapons Convention to destroy their stockpiles by 2005.

K Block always under guard

The first of the chemical munitions at Umatilla arrived in 1962 and kept coming through 1969 -- all in secret. The Army did not confirm the presence of the weapons until the 1970s, and specific information about the stockpile was classified until the early 1990s. "In the past there's been a certain amount of cloak and dagger in the Army. We've been a little paranoid," said Lt. Col. Marie Baldo, the hands-on depot commander who goes to work in combat fatigues.

Today, much of the depot looks abandoned. Only 150 people work there (one worker for every 133 acres), and the vast majority of the igloos are empty. The facility is in the last stages of being phased out. Only the task of destroying its chemical stockpile remains.

All the chemical weapons are stored in 89 igloos inside a fortified compound on the depot's north end, an area known as K Block. To enter K Block, one must go through several security checkpoints and be instructed on the use of a gas mask and three auto-injectors of poison-gas antidote. Visitors, and all the workers, must carry these injectors at all times in K Block. In the event of a release of gas, the injectors are supposed to be plunged into one's thigh, administering neutralizing substances to the bloodstream.

K Block houses two kinds of chemical poisons: blistering agents and nerve agents. Blistering agents, such as HD or mustard, cause blistering over the entire body, including the eyes and lungs. Though lethal, mustard is designed to maim rather than kill.

Nerve agents, such as VX and GB, the latter commonly known as sarin, attack the nervous system, causing the body's muscles and heart to tighten in an unyielding death grip. Don Smythe, director of chemical operations at the depot, described what happens with one drop of VX on the skin:

"Let's say I want to pick up your tape recorder. I pick it up and keep squeezing and squeezing and squeezing, and I wouldn't be able to stop. All the muscles in the body would be affected, the muscles that control the tear and saliva ducts, control the bladder and bowels and the diaphragm. You stop breathing. You go into a coma and you die."

A highly diluted form of sarin was used in the Tokyo subway attack in March 1995 by members of a Japanese religious cult. Twelve people were killed, most within hours, and 5,500 others were sickened. It was the first known use of chemical weapons in a terrorist attack.

K Block is guarded 24 hours a day, and response measures are in place in case of a terrorist incursion. Specifics on security are classified, though it's almost certain that military personnel from other nearby installations would be part of an anti-terrorist response. Suffice to say, said Smythe, that intruders "might be able to get in, but they definitely wouldn't be able to get out."

The perils of the M-55

The chemical agents at the depot are sealed inside 220,000 rockets, bombs, mines and projectiles. One weapon never used in combat is called a "spray tank." Designed to be attached to the bottom of a plane, this weapon is meant to disperse lethal chemical agents like a crop duster, "except it wouldn't be bugs that you're spraying," said George Newman, chief of the chemical ammunition division at the depot. "You'd have to be really sick to think of a weapon like this."

Of all the weapons in K Block, none stir more apprehension than the M-55 rockets. Built during the Vietnam era, these missiles quickly became obsolete. Each rocket -- 6 1/2 feet long and as big around as a large soup can -- contains 10 pounds of nerve agent. Typically, they are stacked 15 to a pallet, 2,000 per igloo. The depot has about 7,000 pallets of M-55s.

The rockets are the only weapons stored with their explosives intact. The cause of worry: the chemical stabilizer designed to keep the rockets from exploding is slowly eroding, and the potential for "auto-ignition" increases with age. Already, at least 54 of the rockets are leaking.

Scientist Richard Magee of the National Research Council, which supports the incinerator, told a Umatilla citizen group: "If anything goes wrong, lightning strikes, something goes wrong with the propellant, one of these things ignites in an igloo, we could have rockets shooting all over. I understand there was an igloo that exploded at the depot -- conventional weapons -- a long time ago. If that would have been chemical weapons, it would have been catastrophic. I'm telling you, M-55 rockets are the potential problem. You have them, unfortunately."

Mistrust of the Army

Handling the M-55s will be the trickiest part of the disposal process. The incinerator complex of several factory-sized buildings will be built on 58 acres in the depot's southeast corner, next to K Block. The farthest distance a munition will travel from storage is one mile.

The munitions will be removed one at a time from pallets and hand-loaded onto conveyers. The conveyers will take them to an explosion-resistant room where robots will drain them of the lethal chemicals, dismantle them and then, in the case of the rockets, chop them up.

The various components will be burned in separate ovens as hot as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, and afterburners will cook them again to be sure they are detoxified. The resulting brines, ash and metal fragments will be considered low-level hazards and be buried in a hazardous-waste landfill in Arlington, Ore., a town 44 miles west of the depot. The process, Army officials say, will burn 99.999 percent of poison gas constituents, resulting in cleaner emissions than what comes out of a typical diesel truck.

Those who don't believe the Army's reassurances can, and often do, cite a long list of perceived past misdeeds and betrayals by the military, and by extension, the U.S. government. In addition to Hanford, opponents cite Agent Orange in Vietnam, and open air testing of chemical weapons in the Utah desert -- testing that in 1968 caused the deaths of 3,600 sheep in an adjacent valley. The Army, without admitting fault, helped dispose of the carcasses and paid a $1 million claim to the sheep owners.

The latest example cited by opponents is Operation Desert Storm, out of which 80,000 American service men and women have reported suffering from Gulf War Syndrome -- a broad range of ailments that may have resulted from exposure to Iraqi chemical weapons. The Pentagon so far has said the connection is inconclusive.

A nationwide group of Gulf War veterans, in an angry gesture toward the Pentagon, has thrown its support to the anti-incineration lobby. "Let's look at the overall picture," said Chip Ward, a state librarian in Utah who lobbies against chemical incineration. "You have one of the deadliest substances known to man, and you are getting rid of it with a method that is at least very controversial, and then you have a group of people doing it who have a long-established reputation for reckless disregard for public health and safety."

Baldo, the depot commander, dismisses such comments. "I've been 20 years in the Army, and no one has ever asked me to lie," she said. "But when somebody doesn't trust you or is frightened, it doesn't matter what you tell them. They're convinced they are the one-in-a-million who'll be killed."

In the Army's favor, its ace in the hole is the fact that no person has ever been killed or even seriously injured by a chemical agent in any of its eight stockpile sites. So the incinerator project is moving forward at Umatilla. Dirt work has already begun. The ceremonial groundbreaking is planned for next month. In the outlying towns, government contractors are busily sealing schools and reassuring the public.

But a collective chill went through the area not too long ago. In the very first test of those magnificent fluted sirens across the land, the activating master button was pushed and officials braced for the ear-splitting sound. Nothing happened; a computer software program malfunctioned. The sirens, full of towering expectation, were as silent as the desert night.

Permission to repost or reprint any material on this site must be obtained by contacting Barbara Davis at The Seattle Times, (206) 464-2310, Copyright © 1997 The Seattle Times Company ==================================================================

Army incinerator gets under way at Umatilla depot

By THERESA GOFFREDO Herald Oregon bureau

HERMISTON - Thursday's blustering and fierce midmorning winds blew in words of hope and prayer that a new incinerator would end the years of storing deadly chemical agents and begin an era of prosperity.

Already, Raytheon Demilitarization Co., in charge of building and operating the $1.3 billion incinerator at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, has spent at least $600,000 in Hermiston for computers and vehicles, said Fred Hissong Jr., Raytheon president.

And the Philadelphia-based Raytheon also will employ about 900 people at the peak of construction and at least 600 during operation of the incinerator. The company is planning a jobs fair Wednesday and Thursday.

"We will work here, live here and own homes here," Hissong promised. "You'll see us at the church, the supermarket and the little league."

Hissong was one of five ceremonial speakers to greet about 100 people who braved the bone-chilling breeze at Thursday's groundbreaking on the long-awaited incinerator.

The incinerator, on a 58-acre site next to the chemical weapons compound known as K Block, is being built to burn about 12 percent of the nation's chemical stockpile stored at the depot. Construction officially began Thursday with the first shovelful of dirt and is expected to be completed by 2001. Operation and destruction of the chemical stockpile should be complete by 2004.

The plant will have five incinerators in all - two liquid ones for chemical agents, a furnace to build the explosive components of the munitions, a furnace for decontamination of metal parts and munitions bodies, and one for packing materials, called dunnage.

Raytheon was awarded the Army's $567 million contract to build the project. The company built the Army's first incinerator on Johnston Island in the South Pacific, called the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal Systems.

Hissong said Raytheon already has hired 60 people from the Tri-City area to train at Johnston Atoll in preparation for jobs at Umatilla.

"Safety will be our paramount concern," Hissong said, adding there have been no accidents since 1995 at the Johnston Atoll, where at least 2.6 million pounds of nerve agent have been destroyed.

Theodore Prociv, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense, said burning the weapons was a "very sophisticated and safe process" and that the Army would continue with that process even though officials will be keeping an ear open to other technologies.

"When I first came here, I learned the name Umatilla meant water ripples over sand," Prociv said. "We will have periodic ripples."

One ripple came two weeks ago when three citizens groups filed a petition asking Oregon's Environmental Commission to revoke the incinerator's hazardous waste permit. The commission will hear arguments regarding that petition June 6.

Retired state Rep. Chuck Norris harkened back to earlier protests when he was depot commander in the late 1960s and the Army announced it wanted to store weapons from Okinawa in Umatilla.

"There was one heck of an uproar," Norris said. He said Oregon's governor at that time threatened to tie himself to a train track to block arrival of the arsenal.

The protests convinced the Army to change its plans and store the weapons on Johnston Atoll. That decision was the one that allowed for the prototype to be built for Umatilla's incinerator, Norris said.

"Peace is the interim between war," Norris said. "There's nothing in history to suggest we shouldn't look to that direction."

One of Thursday's spectators, Barbara Jean Larson, flew in from California - with a pit stop in Portland to visit relatives - to attend the groundbreaking.

Born in Yakima and a graduate of Hermiston High School, Larson said she was excited the people of her hometown would finally be rid of a "terrible hazard" in their back yard.

Larson was so excited by Thursday's groundbreaking she had a hard time loading film in her camera and didn't finish the job before all the gold-plated shovels were put away. Larson wanted a picture of herself holding a shovel.

"I'm exuberant. I've been watching the evolution of this event very carefully since 1996," said the gray-haired Larson, a substitute teacher from Sacramento. "My major hope was that the terrible danger of munitions exploding and hurting the people of Hermiston will be gone and now something is finally being done."

Copyright 1997 Tri-City Herald. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.