Umatilla chemical weapons: end of a nightmare

An evacuation siren that would warn Irrigon, Oregon, residents in case of a problem at the Umatilla chemical weapons disposal facility four miles away. Credit: Tedder/Wikimedia Commons

A spring ritual is no more for school kids in northeast Oregon’s Umatilla and Morrow counties. That’s the annual disaster drill for the U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot, longtime home for 1,480 tons of nerve gas agent and 2,635 tons of mustard gas agent at the spot where the Columbia River swings west to start forming the Washington-Oregon border.

While the adults tested emergency responses in case of an airborne plume of poison gas escaping from the sealed-up bunkers, the kids went through something like a fire drill — being herded into school gyms. Duct tape would cover the cracks in the gym doors. And each gym has equipment that creates a greater air pressure inside the gymnasium tan outside — a standard measure to keep poison gases out out. Meanwhile, a few high school kids, usually from neighboring Hermiston, would portray poison gas victims. Emergency workers would process them, have them strip to swimsuits beneath their clothes, scrub them, test them, and take care of them.

That yearly drill is no longer needed because the last of the poison gas is due to be destroyed in November, a couple months behind the original schedule. “It’s good news. It’s a hazard that’s going away that’s been there for a long time,” said Jim Stearns, emergency manager for Umatilla County.

The Umatilla site is one of the last American chemical depots to destroy its nerve and mustard gas agents in compliance with the worldwide Chemical Weapons Conference pact of 1997, which calls for the United States to get rid of these weapons by April 2012. Then it will take roughly two and a half years to to tear down the incineration complex, feeding the possibly contaminated building parts and equipment through the same burners that destroyed the liquid poison mixtures. After that, the almost 31-square-mile site is expected be a mix of industrial areas and nature preserves.

This will end a more than 40-year-old relationship between America’s weapons of mass destruction and a the surrounding farms, ranches and small towns. It has been mostly a peaceful, although slightly wary relationship. Like the nearby Tri-Cities and Hanford nuclear reservation in southeastern Washington, the locals calmly accepted the poison gases’ presence, mingled with a healthy respect that carelessness could lead to big trouble. Almost every home in the area has a federally provided emergency radio receiver in case any gas escaped the depot. Almost every home has a stash of plastic sheets and duct tape to seal off one room in each house or apartment as a safe chamber if a plume leaves the site.

The Umatilla depot has been one of eight spots where the United States government had stashed its nerve and mustards gases, which are stored in liquid form. The depot began as a weapons storage site in 1941 because Hermiston was inland enough to be safe from sea attacks, but easily accessible by railroads and the Columbia River.

The Army first sent nerve gas to the Uamatilla Depot in 1962 with some rockets filled with VX liquid nerve agent from Newport, Indiana. Ultimately, 4,015 tons of liquid poisons, which would convert into gases when exploded, ended up there by 1969.The chemical weapons were in many forms: aircraft-mounted spray tanks, bombs, rockets, warheads, artillery shells, and land mines. The 21st century saw the end of a $2.7 billion effort to build incinerators capable of reaching 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy the liquid nerve agents and 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy the poison-contaminated metal that held the agents.

The depot held three types of chemical agents in roughly 1,000 bunkers:

  • 1,016 tons of sarin liquid agent, the deadliest substance stored at the site. A nerve gas also known as GB, sarin is a colorless, odorless gas that is dramatically more toxic than cyanide, and is fatal if an antidote is not injected within one minute. As well as being inhaled, the vapor can be absorbed through the skin. When exposed, a human body goes out of control in almost every conceivable way, continuing to spasm even after a person loses consciousness. The Germans developed sarin at the beginning of World War Ii, but never used it. A British military engineer died during a sarin test on humans in 1953. Iraq used it extensively against Iran andthe Kurds in the 1980s. A Japanese religious cult killed 13 people on in the Tokyo subway with sarin in 1995. Iraqi insurgents detonated an arillery shell containing a defective mix of sarin in 2004 to expose two American soldiers to the gas. They were treated quickly enough that they survived.
  • 364 tons of VX liquid agent. This colorless tasteless nerve gas started out a pesticide in England in the early 1950s, but was withdrawn from the market when it turned out to be deadly to people. Its symptoms are similar those created by sarin, and it is absorbed through the nose and skin. Antidotes and intense scrubbing are the counter-measures. Iraq tried to to develop VX, but failed years before the American invasion of that country. The same Japanese cult that unleashed the sarin on the Tokyo subway managed to create some VX, exposing three people to it in 1994. One person died — being the only confirmed VX fatality on record. The only nations confirmed to have VX are Russia and the United States.
  • 2,635 tons of mustard agent.. As of Sept. 28, 182 one-ton containers of mustard agent were all that remained. Mustard gas is not a nerve gas Exposure leads to burns and blisters full of yellow fluids on the skin, as well as burns and blisters in the throat and lungs. A person can survive a moderate exposure to mustard gas, but will have an increased risk of cancer. French chemists developed mustard gas in the 19th century. The Germans and then the Allies began using it in World War I in 1917. Several European nations, Japan and Iraq used mustard gas over the next 70 years, despite the Geneva Convention prohibiting its use in 1925. The United States never used mustard gas in combat, but it had a stockpile aboard a supply ship just off the Italian shoreline in 1943. A German air raid bombed the ship, exposing 628 hospitalized military people to the gas, with 83 dying from that exposure

When the Army began burning the Umatilla depot’s chemical agents in September 2004, it began with the deadliest first — the sarin. After the sarin was gone, the Army switched to the second-deadliest — VX — in October 2007. The depot began burning the mustard agent in June 2009 when the VX was gone.

With the mustard agents’ incineration almost done, the residents are well into looking at what lies ahead. The actual incinerator complex will be dismantled with most of the material fed into the incinerator “like a dragon eating its tail,” in Stearns’s words of. Officials expect that process to take until sometime in 2014. The remaining equipment will be shipped to a hazardous waste landfill that still to be detemined.

Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality will monitor the dismantling and will test the soil to ensure no chemical agents have seeped into it. No spills into the ground have been recorded, said Steve Potts, administrator of the Oregon DEQ’s chemical demilitarization program. “It’s very, very, very, very, highly unlikely that (chemical spills in the ground) would have happened,” Potts said. The bunkers are expected to remain.

The roads and utilities leading to the incinerator complex are expected to stay, so they are in place for yet-to-be-identified future users of the site, said Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Hansell, who is also chairman of the Local Reuse Authority. The authority is a coalition of leaders from Morrow County, Umatilla County, and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation that is in charge of mapping out a futures for the depot.

Hansell said preliminary thoughts call for industrial areas to be set up on the the depot’ss southern side, and state and federal nature preserves elsewhere on the site, which is about four miles from the Umatilla Wildlife Refuge along the Columbia River. However, the authority still has a lot of study and discussing to do before laying out any definite plan, Hansell said.

“We don’t want to embark on something that we don’t have the capacity to make successful,” he said.

Roughly 1,200 civilians work at the depot. Bruce Sorte, an Oregon State University economist at the Hermiston Agricultural Research and Extension Center, said the closure will likely cost the area $40 million to $50 million annually, while negating any job growth elsewhere in that region over the next several years. But he said the closures predicted economic effects are fuzzy because many of the depot’s employees live in the Tri-Cities about 35 miles away in southeastern Washington, he said.

“But let’s keep this in perspective. The town was at risk,” Sorte said.

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