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Originally published Tuesday, December 27, 2011 at 8:00 PM

Inspectors agree: Chemical weapons gone from Oregon depot

After decades of work, the Army has incinerated the last of the deadly chemical weapons stored in its depot near Umatilla in Eastern Oregon. Now, communities in this remote part of the state are searching for a new identity.

Seattle Times environment reporter

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It would be hard to exaggerate the peril that was stacked in the weird concrete bunkers south of the Tri-Cities and across the Columbia River in Eastern Oregon.

Inside the sheds rising from the shrub-steppe desert sat roughly a quarter-million leaking rockets, crumbling mines, decaying bombs and aging artillery shells, many filled with high-octane poisons that could kill with a single drop.

When the Army started burning these weapons in 2004, the potential threat was so great it altered the lives of nearby residents. They bought gas masks, and 19,000 of them installed emergency radios. They endured monthly test blasts from 76 outdoor warning sirens. They sent their children to schools that could be pressurized like airplanes at the press of a button. They stored sheets of plastic precut to seal doors and windows quickly in case of a chemical release.

And now it's over.

Fifty years after the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot began stockpiling some of the vilest stuff on Earth — 3,717 tons of VX, sarin and mustard gas — a community once defined by its eerie Cold War mission now is searching for a new identity and a future.

The Army announced this fall that it had incinerated the last of Oregon's chemical weapons, about 12 percent of the nation's stockpile. This month a team of international inspectors left — satisfied, finally, that it was true.

Residents are turning in their emergency radios and tossing out their sheets of Visqueen. Sirens are coming down, as are some emergency road signs. The bunkers, called "igloos," all have been sterilized.

Roughly 600 workers are being told their jobs will go away in coming years, according to the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce. The only thing left to incinerate: the aprons, gloves and protective suits they wore when working around the munitions.

"We no longer have to wear gas masks around the site," Army depot spokesman Michael Fletcher said. "The excitement is over, and we're very happy about it."

While the Northwest still battles over its costliest Cold War legacy — a multibillion-dollar cleanup of the Hanford nuclear reservation — Oregon towns such as Hermiston, Stanfield, Irrigon and Boardman are readying for a future in which the government pretty much leaves for good.

"No denying it: There was a lot of bad stuff out here," said Jim Stearns, emergency manager for Umatilla County. "People used to ask me, 'Doesn't it worry you to live there?' My answer was always, 'Yes, but I still feel safer than I would driving in Seattle.' "

But, he admitted, "I'm just glad it's gone, and I'm ready to see what happens next."

Gruesome, hidden

Not long after Hitler marched into Poland in 1939, the government selected this 25-square-mile patch of scrub to stockpile a conventional military arsenal. By the time Japanese bombers struck Pearl Harbor in 1941, the igloos were built and weapons shipments were coming and going.

As a high-school student, Frank Harkenrider worked afternoons loading artillery onto trucks and taking them to the nearby train station.

"One day, a bomb fell off and I ran to the back of the truck thinking, 'I'll be safe here,' " Harkenrider recalled. "That was dumb. If that thing had gone off they would never have found me."

He wasn't kidding. Another spring evening, in 1944, an explosion shattered windows up and down Main Street and blew the door off the local theater. More than 250 quarter-ton bombs had detonated inside an igloo. Six workers died. The cause of the blast never was determined, but some suspect a forklift tine punctured a bomb casing.

Then, in 1962, the most gruesome weapons began arriving: mines, projectiles and spray canisters of blister agents; and M55 burster rockets designed to shower enemy battlefields with sarin or VX. They came in at night, by military aircraft or rail, packed alongside live rabbits — to detect leaks. They were stored behind razor wire in 89 of Umatilla's 1,001 igloos.

These weapons had been developed to incapacitate. Corrosive mustard gas seared the flesh and caused internal bleeding. Inhaling a fraction of a colorless drop of sarin could cause convulsions, seizures and death within seconds. VX was worse, but sarin was easily aerosolized.

Some neighbors knew and were comfortable, more or less, with the stockpile. But they didn't know how much was there, or its condition. More than 125 of the weapons eventually leaked, some twice. Workers carried poison-gas antidote injectors

"I didn't truly become aware of the scope and how dangerous it was until 1988," said Stearns, the county emergency manager. He was serving then as Hermiston's fire chief, and the Army approached him to help develop an emergency plan as it prepared over the coming years to incinerate the weapons as part of international treaties.

At first, early responders didn't have portable monitoring equipment. Then they got monitors that couldn't detect gases at low, but still deadly levels. The Army ran accident scenarios and described its worst case — an earthquake or plane crash into the wrong igloo, followed by a fire, which could kill 10,000 or more people. On a windy day, gas could spread 77 miles.

"It was a little scary," Stearns said. "Trying to protect the public from something meant to kill or injure mass quantities of people. ... That's a tough thing."

Evacuations clearly would never be fast enough. So emergency planners began educating nearby residents how to "shelter in place" during a release, said former emergency planner Shawn Halsey. That meant sealing doors and windows and hiding in the bathroom. Parents were told to leave children in school. It was a hard sell — even for the pros.

"I had family in the community, and my theory was, 'I hope everybody shelters in place so the roads are open and I can get the hell out of here,' " Stearns said.

And now it's all gone

In 1999, the emergency warning system went off. Loudspeakers issued verbal commands, in Spanish, warning of a chemical release. It was a computer glitch.

There would be other leaks inside igloos and numerous fines for improper monitoring and paperwork. In 2010, a worker suffered a small mustard-gas blister rash on his hip while weighing a refrigerator-size canister before it was burned. He was back to work within the week.

But the incineration process, which cost roughly $2.5 billion over the years, came off without major foul-ups. Through it all, the community prepared for inevitable transition.

"My job will end probably the first of May," Stearns said. "We all knew that would happen when we signed up."

It will still be a few years before the Army is finished; it has to tear down the incinerator and do some environmental restoration. (The igloos will stay.) But in preparation, community leaders have come up with a plan for which they're still awaiting congressional action.

The Oregon National Guard would take over about 7,400 acres, including the 89 igloos that once held chemical weapons, for a training complex. The conventional weapons were shipped away long ago.

An additional 5,600 acres of shrub steppe would be managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a wildlife refuge. Two other areas then would be set aside for industrial and commercial development — one in Umatilla County, the other in adjacent Morrow County.

"In that corner, two major freeways come together and it's about equal distance from Boise and Spokane and Seattle and Portland," said Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Hansel. "We feel it would be a great place for a major distribution facility. The igloos are dry and cool — perfect for storing potatoes."

Already, Hansel said, the community has fielded inquiries from Amazon. The Red Cross, too, has been in contact, and may use the igloos as dry storage for emergency supplies in the event of a catastrophic West Coast tsunami.

That makes great sense to Hansel.

"After all," he said, "we were chosen initially by the Pentagon because we were far enough inland that planes from aircraft carriers couldn't reach us."

Craig Welch: 206-464-2093

or cwelch@seattletimes.com

On Twitter @craigawelch

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