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Community Prepares For Umatilla Chemical Depot’s New Future

It’s unusual for 20,000 acres of undeveloped land to become suddenly available for new use. But discussions are underway about what to do with a valuable parcel near the Columbia River in eastern Oregon.

The only trouble is it’s been home to 12 percent of the nation’s chemical weapons. Correspondent Anna King has the story.

If you live near the U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot you’re almost numb to public service announcements that tell you what to do in case of a nerve gas leak.

A volunteer holds a tiny burrowing owl just before it’s banded so federal wildlife biologists can track its migration patterns. The owl recently hatched in an underground burrow on the U.S. Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot in eastern Oregon.

But these announcements are already being phased out in place of more general messages about emergency planning.

That’s because the chemical depot’s mission is drawing to a close. The Army has just started incinerating the last of its chemical weapons stored here.

What’s not clear is — what’s next for these 20,000 acres once all those chemicals are gone?

On a recent, hot morning, I trekked to the middle of the depot with federal wildlife biologists. We’re within site of the underground bunkers than hold mustard blister agent. And we’re in search of baby burrowing owls. Listen close.

That’s the sound of an angry baby burrowing owl. He’s not happy about being pulled out of his underground burrow for banding.

James Rebholz is one of the federal wildlife biologists banding the owls.

James Rebholz: “Now we’re going to get his left wing so if you would flip him back over.”

The scientists and volunteers have this tracking program, because these tiny birds are threatened. Their habitat is rapidly disappearing in the West. But here at the depot, free from people and development, they’re flourishing.

Rebholz says dozens of babies have hatched this spring at the depot.

James Rebholz: "It is one of the last remaining intact shrub-steppe communities that we have in this whole area. So I guess we would like to think of it as something that’s going to last."

Besides these owls, there are rare birds like long-billed curlews, herds of antelope and rare plants like bitter brush. It’s not just scientists and conservationists who want to keep development off the depot. It’s local tribes too.

Armand Minthorne is the spiritual leader of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Reservation. He says the Umatillas view the depot as part of their traditional territory.

Armand Minthorne: “The tribes are going to be able to exercise their treaty rights on depot property. Because of the resources that are there, the medicines and the foods. So that’s what we envision once the chemical weapons are all destroyed.”

Bill Hansell has a very different plan. He’s been a Umatilla County Commissioner for 27 years. And he’s been actively planning the depot’s post-chemical future since 1988. He sees good use in the existing buildings, bunkers and railroad tracks.

Bill Hansell: “We’ve got a campus, a military headquarters there that I am sure someone can come up with some usage there. A thousand igloos, at first people say well they are just concrete bunkers, what are we going to do with them? I think there’s some real possibilities for creative ideas including storage.”

Ideas for those igloos abound: Someone even suggested keeping Northwest wine in bunkers that once stored mustard agent. Still others, like federal wildlife biologists, say those same bunkers would be great bat habitat.

What ultimately happens is largely up to a local reuse authority, authorized by the federal government. Both Minthorne and Hanzell are part of that group.

It will take up to two years to destroy all the mustard, and another two years to tear down the Army’s incinerator and clean up the site. For now, federal biologists are focused on their owls.

They plan to come back to the depot next spring to fit some of these burrowing owls with tiny transmitters to track their migration south.