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Land of Two Rivers

"All The Water for All the Land"

Remaking Community:
McNary Dam

Making Way for
John Day

Umatilla Today and Tomorrow


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Regional Choices: Incinerating the Past?

By the Army's own definition then, [the nerve gas] was sort of a garbage - a very lethal but non-essential garbage -- looking for a home. Since it frightens the Okinawans, let's dump it in Oregon. . . . These terms ought to be unacceptable to Oregonians -- and the fact that they are unacceptable is supported by the tremendous wave of revulsion that has swept across the state. Oregon Governor Tom McCall, 1970

Above. The $1.2 billion Umatilla Chemical Incineration plant under construction, April, 1999. The plant is located next to K-block where 2,635 containers holding one ton each of mustard blister agents, and more than 155,000 rocket-bombs and projectiles filled with nerve agent VX are stored. Below. The CSEPP program set up this Emergency Preparedness display in the Hermiston Public Library in 1999. Photos by Donna Sinclair

   In the 1970s President Richard Nixon and Governor Tom McCall of Oregon argued over placing chemical weapons at the Umatilla Army Depot. Nixon won, and today Umatilla and Morrow County residents grapple with the consequences. The Umatilla Depot, one of eight U.S. chemical weapons sites, contains 12% of the nation's chemical weapons. Others are stored at Johnson Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. The army says that the old weapons present an increasing storage risk. Since 1984, officials have discovered 113 "leakers." A 1985 Congressional order and a 1997 international treaty mandate their destruction. The army has chosen on-site incineration as the safest disposal method. But some environmental groups oppose incineration claiming that an alternative, lower-tech process that neutralizes the chemicals without burning them, would be preferable.

  As plans for incineration developed, a federally-funded public outreach office in Hermiston opened in 1996 to reassure and educate the public. Emergency plans exist in the case of nerve agent "leakers." Sirens, radios, and emergency kits are supposed to protect residents; however many have not received them. In 1999, Mayor George Hash pointed out while trying to obtain "Shelter in Place" kits for a Headstart Building in Umatilla, that "these things never get attended to. It's always we're gonna do it tomorrow. . . . And those kids are taken down there. . . for the day, with no protection."

  Until recently, most residents were not fearful of the nearby depot. It provided jobs, and so has the incineration site - nearly 800. But recent events have left some citizens wondering. On September 15, 1999, more than 30 people unexpectedly became ill while in the building that will dismantle and destroy the chemical weapons. No one knows what was in the "wall of fumes" faced by workers as they attempted to leave the building. "I think it was chemical agent," said one worker whose fingers were blistered and lung capacity affected. Bomb threats, too, plagued the demilitarization site - three within two weeks in February 2000. Such threats are not taken lightly, as nearly 4,000 tons of chemical weapons are stored next to the incinerator plant - scheduled to begin test burns in January 2001.

Mayor George Hash discusses the impact of the chemical depot in Umatilla

Remarks of Dr. Richard Magee before the Umatilla Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Commission, Oct. 7, 1996 (with questions from Hermiston mayor, Frank Harkenrider)

Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program



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