Workers in northeast Oregon on Tuesday are expected to begin incinerating the last of the chemical weapons stored in the Northwest as part of the U.S. stockpile, ending a nearly 50-year presence in the region and whittling the number of storage sites nationwide to three.
The Umatilla Chemical Depot in Hermiston once stored 12 percent of the United States’ chemical weapons, including deadly VX nerve agent and blistering mustard agent.
Work to begin incinerating the weapons began seven years ago to meet a 2012 deadline imposed by the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty.
“This is a historic event for the region,” depot spokesman Jim Hackett said in a telephone interview. “People will wake up and realize they have no more chemical weapons in their backyard. That’s significant.”
There once were nine U.S. chemical stockpiles scattered across the country. That number will be reduced to three with the completion of work in Oregon. There still will be sites in Pueblo, Colorado, and Richmond, Kentucky — and the Deseret Chemical Depot in Tooele, Utah, which once held 40 percent of the U.S. stockpile but is expected to complete incineration in January.
Once the Utah site completes operations, 90 percent of the U.S. stockpile will have been destroyed.
Two months before the United States entered World War II in 1941, the federal government began storing conventional weapons across 30 square miles of northeast Oregon, a largely agricultural region 180 miles east of Portland, near the Washington state border. Weapons were stored in partly buried earthen bunkers, referred to as “igloos.”
In 1962, the depot also began storing chemical weapons, and in 1994, conventional weapons were shipped offsite.
The international treaty to rid the world of chemical weapons shifted the focus to destroying the substances, rather than just safely storing them, and that meant big changes for people in northeast Oregon.
Thousands of shelter-in-place kits containing duct tape, plastic sheeting and medical scissors were distributed to area residents to seal up a safe room in the event of a leak or accident at the site. Pressurized rooms were created as safety zones in schools, retirement homes and hospitals to protect the public.
Sirens were installed and tested in at least eight different communities in Oregon and Washington, and emergency management officials conducted emergency exercises each year.
Those sirens will sound for the last time this week. Then they will go to Oregon’s coastal communities for tsunami warning systems.
The stockpile of deadly GB nerve agent, or sarin, and VX nerve agent already have been destroyed at the site. On Tuesday, workers were expected to begin incinerating the last of 2,635 ton-size containers of mustard agent, which causes blisters on skin, scars on the eyes and inflammation in airways.
Incinerators heat the agents and their containers to thousands of degrees, then run the exhaust through pollution-removing filters and afterburners.
More than $2.6 billion has been spent overall on construction and operations there.
Umatilla County Commissioner Bill Hansell said ridding the region of the dangerous chemicals is a positive step. But finding a future use for the site is equally as important, he said.
Plans have yet to be determined, but local officials hope for some industrial development there.
“We knew from the beginning that this was a project that was going to come to a close, that wasn’t going to last forever,” Hansell said. “Now the question is, ‘What are we going to do with the program drawing to a close?’”
About 1,200 people work at the site. That number will gradually decline as some people move on to new sites and work to tear down buildings and clean up the site gradually wraps up over the next three or four years.