Advertising

Sunday, February 17, 1991 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

E-mail article     Print

An Aging Cache Of Nerve Gas -- U.S. Plan To Burn Huge Stores Of Outdated Chemical Munitions In Oregon Has Its Risks

UMATILLA, Ore. - The actual amount is a military secret, but somewhere between 500,000 and a million gallons of nerve-attacking lethal chemicals and blistering mustard gas are stored here on a high, windy plateau near the Columbia River.

The stockpiled liquid poisons remain from a time when America feared a chemical war with the Soviet Union.

Today, the Army is more likely to kill its own people with these aging munitions, some of which are leaking. And so, even as the threat of such weapons hangs over the Persian Gulf, the Pentagon plans to burn them.

Congress has told the Army to incinerate nearly all the material in this decade. Transporting the weapons is too dangerous, so the job must be done where they are stored - eight sites in the continental U.S., including Umatilla, and one on a Pacific island.

A whiff of vapor or a drop of the nearly invisible, odorless nerve agent can cause spasms, convulsions and a choking death. Mustard gas, about 60 percent of the Umatilla inventory, is less lethal. It blisters the skin and can harm the lungs and eyes.

Government mathematicians guess that the chances of an accident here are very low, but the question of danger still blows in the wind.

The wind comes strong and steady, usually from the southwest, across the Umatilla Army depot and its incinerator site directly into the largest population centers of this irrigated farming area, the towns of Hermiston (pop. 9,640) and Umatilla (pop. 3,200).

The prevailing wind crosses hundreds of bunkers full of conventional weapons, whistles past guard towers and over a double row of sharp wire fences before reaching the resting place of the liquid death. There, underneath the scrub grass in 90 steel-and-concrete ``igloos,'' lies 11.6 percent of the nation's arsenal of chemical rockets, mines, bombs, mustard-gas containers, spray tanks and artillery shells.

Past the north fence of the 20,000-acre depot, the wind ruffles the hair on Ron Baker's grazing beef cows, rattles the windows of Nola Clarneau's house, then swoops down a steep hill to a driveway where 13-year-old Mike Bradbury shoots baskets with his buddies. From there, it's on through Umatilla to the great concrete edifice of McNary Dam.

There's enough nerve gas here to kill everyone in Washington and Oregon several times over, if it could be delivered effectively.

That, the Army says, will never happen. For one thing, it takes a certain kind of wind to carry the gas. A 2- to 6-mile-an-hour breeze in warm weather is best, much like the light wind that spread poison gas from a chemical plant to the streets of Bhopal, India, in 1984 when 3,500 people were killed. Umatilla's usually swifter wind would dissipate the gas and save people, government reports say.

And, although most of the nerve agents form a vapor that moves easily in the wind, the deadliest kind forms droplets that won't travel far.

``There is no doomsday situation that I can envision,'' says Gen. Walter Busbee, head of the Army's nationwide chemical demilitarization project. ``And I'm not an eternal optimist, I can assure you.''

But any form of nerve gas is extremely lethal, and among the weapons stored here are 106,000 M55 rockets described by experts as the most dangerous weapon in the U.S. stockpile. Some here have already leaked small amounts of nerve gas, and they all contain a propellant that may become unstable over time. Umatilla has the second largest collection of these rockets in the world.

And, even though the Army calls the chances of an accident slim, documents say it could happen. Many of the area's people live within about six miles of the dump. If the gas escapes, it probably would kill those who are not protected.

``I've been told by Army experts that a significant problem at a (burning) facility at Umatilla would make Bhopal look like child's play,'' says U.S. Rep. Les AuCoin, an Oregon Democrat who sits on the House defense appropriations subcommittee.

Even Andy Aichele, who once worked at the depot and has spent his entire 66 years in Umatilla County, worries about the place that has been his neighbor for so long.

``It should be something the whole area here ought to be concerned about,'' he said.

But most residents in this patriotic and economically healthy area aren't worried. They've grown comfortable with the depot, which employed thousands of workers after it was built in 1940 to store conventional arms.

People such as Baker and Clarneau say there's no reason for concern now because the Army has safely cared for the chemical weapons since they began arriving here in 1962. Baker and Clarneau don't know what to do in the event of a leak, nor do most others. Many are more worried about radioactive waste at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation 45 miles away.

As for the depot, cattleman Baker says he has faith in the Lord, and in the depot commanders he has known personally.

``You can have a lot of concerns about everything, like stubbing your toe and falling down,'' he says. ``Why bother?''

Clarneau says she rides her horse to the depot's north fence all the time. ``It doesn't bother me a bit.''

Nonetheless, a few voices of doubt are being raised. Basketball shooter Bradbury says he changed his mind about the depot last November, when a Portland television news program gave viewers a rare look at depot problems. Now the teen-ager shudders as he watches U.S. soldiers preparing for chemical war, and Israelis and Saudis donning gas masks as Iraqi Scud missiles land.

``They should give us some gas masks,'' he says.

The youngster might get his wish, or something similar.

Preparing for the worst:

Gear, alarms, antidotes

After nearly three decades of living with chemical weapons, Bradbury's community, along with the states of Oregon and Washington and the federal government, are planning to protect people and evacuate them in the event of a chemical leak.

The plans aren't final yet, but John Sorensen, a federal hazards expert at the Oak Ridge (Tenn.) National Laboratory, says some or all of the 12,000 people living closest to the depot, and those near the other incineration sites in the country, could become the first U.S.home-dwellers to get government-issued gas masks.

What they receive, though, may not be the masks familiar to TV news viewers. Sorensen says a leading candidate for Umatilla and the other areas is a garment that resembles a sweatshirt with a hood, a plastic face mask and a battery-operated fan that draws in filtered breathing air. The fan also pressurizes the garment to keep out seeping gases. The hood costs the same as a conventional gas mask - $150 to $200 - but Sorensen says it's easier to fit and maintain.

There's more. With orders from Congress to provide the depot's neighbors maximum possible protection from the incinerators, the Army, through a 1988 contract with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, is considering spending $114 million on a flurry of emergency measures at all sites. That's more money than FEMA has ever had for planning a project, says Bruce Knipe, a FEMA program manager in Bothell.

Possibly as soon as the end of this year, thousands of homes around the Umatilla depot could be equipped with long-lasting tone-alert radios that cost more than $100 each. The radios - now used around some nuclear plants - turn on when signaled by a remote frequency so they can broacast an alarm as well as instructions.

In order to alert people outdoors, farmers and field workers, 24 sirens costing $25,000 apiece will be installed on poles on both sides of the Columbia River, says Tom Worden, Oregon emergency planner.

Washington state emergency planner Sandi Benbrook says too much is happening too fast, and she's feeling exasperated. But evacuation plans will be drawn, and police and fire departments will be equipped to direct traffic in a chemical cloud. Hospitals will be given anti-nerve-gas medicines, although antidotes won't be distributed to the general public because some are hallucinogenic drugs with side effects, Sorensen says.

Knipe says the public is being involved in planning committees because ``there's no way to co-opt and make the general public comfortable unless we involve them.''

Some say it's ironic the Army waited so long to equip the general public. Studies indicate the greatest danger was present when weapons were on rail cars and trucks being shipped to Umatilla between 1962 and 1969. In fact, since the 1940s, dozens of people around the world have been injured while handling chemical-weapon shipments.

The U.S. shipments stopped when the Nixon administration banned Pentagon production of chemical weapons in 1969, but environmentalists reacted with alarm last year when the U.S. shipped its European supplies of nerve-gas weapons from Germany to an island in the Pacific.

Living next door to nerve gas is risky, too. The igloos where the weapons are stored are strong and spread 450 feet apart to avoid multiple explosions. But they are not invulnerable. Army documents describe low-probability worst-case accidents - an earthquake or a plane crash, for instance - that could demolish the chemical igloos and kill thousands. In 1936, a major temblor did hit Milton-Freewater, just 55 miles east, and Navy A-6 bombers practice runs 20 miles to the west.

As burn project begins,

the threat grows higher

What is driving the emergency preparedness, however, is not bombers and quakes, but the incineration project.

Sometime in 1997 - if a loose schedule doesn't slip more and if costs don't soar out of sight - the Army will finish building and testing the $500 million chemical-weapons incinerator on the east side of the dump, near a canyon that could funnel gas into town in an accident.

When the burning begins, technicians will regularly enter the igloos with forklifts, jostle the tender rockets and mines out of their resting places and load them into reinforced containers for a brief truck ride to the incinerator.

``The day we start moving this stuff, the threat goes up,'' said Knipe of FEMA. ``A human being in a forklift has to pick up the munition, and it may be the first time the munition is moved in a long time.''

``Just having to process a waste that contains live explosives is a major concern,'' says Brett McKnight, an Oregon hazardous-waste official.

The trickiest weapon is the 6 1/2-foot-long M55 rocket, which carries a gallon of nerve gas along with a fuse and a small ``burster'' charge.

Built in the early 1960s, and soon outdated, the rockets have aluminum shells so thin that nerve gas has eaten through more than 400 of them at Umatilla and another 500 at other sites. Depot commander Lt. Col. Larry Sparks says the leaks are minor and it is easy to repack the rockets in sealed containers or drain them.

The rockets are the only chemical weapons stored with their explosives intact, and the propellant is slowly losing a stabilizer chemical that keeps the fuel from igniting on its own. Sparks says tests show the rockets are out of danger, but no one knows for how long - anywhere from 10 to 99 years.

The M55s - stacked 2,000 at a time in the igloos - can also chain-react when another rocket blows up nearby. In live tests in Utah and South Dakota, rockets chain-reacted into explosions and fires that lasted several hours.

Ninety-seven percent of the nerve gas was incinerated in the blaze, but 570 pounds of one nerve agent escaped in the first 20 minutes. While no one was in the test area unprotected, the 570 pounds were enough, scientists say, to kill hundreds of people over a distance of 5 to 27 miles.

Bombs and artillery shells don't chain-react because they have thick casings, are defused and contain low quantities of explosives.

Spotty search for safety

in touchy disposal game

Scientists have been warning the Army for years to get rid of the weapons. And Army officials have tried, but with more than 500,000 in stock it was hard to do. They tried sinking them in the ocean and neutralizing the gas in them.

But Congress banned scuttling ships full of chemical weapons as unsafe. ``Nobody would ever belly up to'' such a method today, said Charles Baronian, technical director of the Army's chemical demilitarization program. And the neutralizing process produced five pounds of waste for every pound of poison, even though it is much less toxic.

The Army also discounted a promising enzyme that researchers say could ``eat'' nerve agent, breaking it down into much less toxic compounds.

The Army also considered incinerating the agents with underground nuclear weapons, or dropping them into volcanoes. But the danger of moving the weapons was too great.

So incinerators were chosen. Again, because of transportation dangers, the Army rejected the idea of building just one or two regional incinerators to handle the whole stockpile. Instead, the Army intends to build, in the next six years, incinerators for the sites in Oregon, Texas, Alabama, Utah, Arkansas, Indiana, Kentucky and Colorado where the weapons are stored.

A small test incinerator was constructed a decade ago in Utah, and last year a prototype plant similar to the one planned for Umatilla began limited operation on Johnston Island, a tiny atoll 720 miles southwest of Hawaii.

Once envisioned for M55 rockets only, the ovens are now being tooled for all the poisonous weapons in the arsenal.

The rockets, mines, artillery shells and other containers will be chopped into sections before heading for the burners.

The weapons will be drained of chemicals and everything incinerated separately in ovens as hot as 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Afterburners will cook the stuff again to be sure it is detoxified.

While swords are pounded into plowshares, chemical weapons will be torched into a combination of steam, carbon dioxide, metal scrap and wastes that include heavy metals. The latter must go to a toxic landfill.

Technical director Baronian, who was splashed with a drop of nerve gas and was saved by an antidote when he was a young engineer, says the incineration process is loaded with redundant safety features. For moving the weapons to the ovens, the Army has designed a 9-ton coffin impervious to destruction. Filters, scrubbers and alarm systems are designed to prevent nerve gas and other pollutants from going up the incinerator's exhaust stacks.

The features are not without their faults, however. The Army Audit Agency has criticized the $120 million cost of the transporting coffins. And special filters didn't keep a tiny amount of nerve agent from escaping out the stack at the Utah test plant in 1987 when three systems simultaneously failed, in part because of human error.

At Johnston Island last December, an extremely minute, non-toxic quantity of unburned nerve agent went undetected through a cold oven, in part because a gas detector jammed. And even when the alarms work, the chemical analyzers take seven minutes to detect the gas.

In all cases, the public wasn't endangered and Baronian says his agency has beefed up safety systems in the plants and changed the blueprints after each incident. And Gen. Busbee says if the Army takes away his coffins, he wants an equally safe alternative.

Soaring costs, slack

schedules a challenge

As much as safety issues are a headache, cost and schedule problems are a migraine. In two reports last year, the General Accounting Office rapped the Army for delays and cost overruns. Conceived as a $2 billion project in 1986, the incineration pricetag is now $5 billion and rising.

``We underestimated, we undershot the mark,'' said Busbee.

And though Congress mandated in 1985 that the weapons be destroyed by 1994, the Army is now looking past 1998.

Baronian says things have slipped because of environmental requirements and mechanical problems. For instance, the Johnston Island plant has repeatedly shut down because metal wastes stuck to a heated conveyor belt.

Marilyn Tischbin, national spokeswoman for the program, says construction schedules also slipped last October when Congress axed $96.5 million from the program's annual budget.

But the Army Audit Agency, in another recent report, says sloppy oversight is also to blame. The contractor running the Johnston Island incinerator failed to develop an approved quality-control plan for the first two years, the report says. Even so, the Army gave the company $143,000 in award fees. In turn, the contractor overcharged the government for things like $11,500 worth of plane tickets home that employees never used.

Also, the Army was naive about clearing environmental hurdles. Military scientists thought a single test burn would be enough to prove that the entire Utah plant could operate without emitting toxic gases. But the state of Utah wants 12 test burns, each accompanied by weeks of chemical analysis. The Army's application to Oregon for an anti-pollution permit filled seven boxes, paperwork that senior state environmental engineer Edward Chiong says will take him a year and a half to review.

So the Umatilla plant once scheduled for groundbreaking this year is now unlikely to get under construction until December 1992 or later, Chiong says. Construction takes 39 months, then there must be testing.

Hermiston business leaders hope that, sometime after the year 2000, the Army will turn a cleansed Umatilla depot over to civilians for economic development. Residents now make their living mostly from farming and the big plants that crank out food products like French fries for McDonald's restaurants. Just 207 people work at the depot.

Mortician Joe Burns, a local economic booster, says the two major freeways that crisscross the depot boundary, and the adjacent railroad and river, make it a prime spot for an industrial park.

Indeed, the depot is on an Army closure list, but its fate remains unclear.

The depot is being used now to ship bullets, artillery shells and bombs to the Persian Gulf. And Congress has told the Army to study the possibility of keeping some of the chemical incinerators available to destroy other wastes later on. Some Hermiston business leaders think a toxic-waste incinerator would be good for the local economy, but AuCoin says many Oregonians dread the idea.

There are other environmental concerns. Wastes from conventional weapons have contaminated groundwater at the Umatilla depot. And critics of the chemical-incineration plans have already begun protests and threatened lawsuits in other states.

International treaties ban the use of chemical weapons, but not their possession. Some 26 countries are known or thought to possess them. The U.S. and the Soviet Union have agreed to destroy their supplies, and the Pentagon has on hold a project to build a new generation of nerve agents.

The mere existence of all these chemical weapons presents a conundrum to environmentalists and others who oppose them. Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, which are trying to halt the Johnston Island project, have criticized, at various times, the storage, movement and burning of the chemicals.

``What you have here is a classic Hobson's choice,'' says AuCoin of Oregon, ``and one that we virtually pre-ordained when we started producing these Godforsaken weapons decades ago. There are no good choices.''

U.S. CHEMICAL WEAPONS STOCKPILES

The United States plans to destroy its older chemical weapons by 1997. Here are percentages of total U.S. stockpile slated for disposal, by location. Figures do not include newer binary munitions.

1. Tooele, Utah: 42.3%;

2. Pine Bluff, Ark.: 12.0%;

3. Umatilla, Ore.: 11.6%;

4. Pueblo, Colo.: 9.9%;

5. Anniston, Ala.: 7.1%;

6. Outside U.S.: 6.6%;

(Not shown) ;

7. Aberdeen, Md.: 5.0%;

8. Newport, Ind.: 3.9%;

9. Lexington, Ky.: 1.6%:

MILESTONES IN MAKING AND DESTROYING CHEMICAL WEAPONS

1899: Hague Convention restricts use of chemical, biological agents as weapons. U.S. does not sign.

1915-18: Germans in WW1 first to use poison gases on large scale; Allies develop gas masks, own poison arsenal.

1925: Geneva Protocol on Gas Warfare bans use of poison gas, bacterial weapons. U.S. does not ratify until 1974.

1960s-70s: U.S. uses chemical defoliants, which also burn humans, in Vietnam.

May-June 1967: M55 rockets and mustard gas sunk in the Atlantic, creating the first chemical-weapons dump.

Nov. 26, 1969: Nixon says U.S. will confine biological research to defense; pledges U.S. will never be first to use lethal gases.

1971: Army moves chemical weapons from Okinawa to Johnston Island, southwest of Hawaii.

1972: Congress passes law prohibiting ocean dumping of weapons.

Nov. 1982: Army begins seeking congressional approval to upgrade chemical-weapons arsenal.

May 1984: Nat'l Academy of Sciences recommends burning old chemical weapons. Estimate: up to $4 billion.

Oct. 1985: Congress estimates cost of destroying chemical weapons at $1.7 billion.

Nov. 1985: Congress mandates destruction of old chemical weapons by 1994. Law says any plants built to destroy weapons must also be destroyed.

March 1986: Army submits plan to Congress comparing costs, advantages of disposal options. Estimate: $2 billion.

1988: Army completes construction of large prototype incinerator at Johnston Island.

Feb. 1988: Army announces it will incinerate the weapons at each of eight storage sites in the continental U.S.

March 1988: Army issues plan for building incinerators at eight storage sites, asks Congress to allow more time. Estimate: $3.4 billion.

Sept. 1988: Congress gives Army until April 30, 1997 to complete destruction of chemical weapons.

1989: 140 nations in Paris agree to ban use of chemical weapons, seek ban on production, storage.

Nov. 1989: Congress tells Army to study possibility of keeping some incinerators to dispose of other toxics.

April 5, 1990: Army tells Congress disposal program won't be completed until end of 1998. Cost: $5 billion.

June 1990: Johnston Island incinerator begins limited operation, slowed by mechanical problems.

July-Nov. 1990: 100,000 nerve-gas artillery projectiles shipped from Germany to Johnston Island, eliminating U.S. stockpile in Europe.

Mid-Dec. 1990: 5,000 M55 nerve-gas rockets have been burned at Johnston Island.

June 1991: Chemical lea exercise planned for Tooele, Utah.

Source: Encyclopedia Britannica; National Academy of Sciences; U.S. Army

WHAT'S IN THE DUMP

The 20,000-acre Umatilla Army Depot Activity holds between 500,000 and 1 million gallons of poisonous agents.

What Umatilla's poisons do to you

HD (Mustard): Smells like garlic (another blistering agent called lewisite smells like geraniums). Blisters eyes, lungs, skin, but effects may not appear for several hours. Toxic in liquid and vapor forms. Sometimes fatal if inhaled.

GB: Straw-colored liquid nerve agent, about same consistency as water. Spreads as an aerosol or gas, and dissipates. Inhibits a bodily enzyme, cholinesterase, causing nerves to react uncontrollably. Usually inhaled, but can be absorbed through skin and eyes. Highly toxic; can kill in 15 minutes.

VX: Clear to straw-colored liquid; about same density as water but evaporates up to 2,000 times more slowly than GB. Spreads as an aerosol or in droplets. Persistent, will remain where it falls. Also inhibits cholinesterase, causing nerves to react uncontrollably. Many times more toxic than GB, can kill more effectively on skin contact.

155 mm projectile ;

Agent: GB, VX ;

Volume #: 0.7-1.3 gal. ;

Length: 26.8 inches ;

8-in. projectile ;

Agent: GB, VX ;

Volume #: 1.6 gal. ;

Length: 35.1 inches ;

M55 rocket ;

Agent: GB, VX ;

Volume #: 1.2 gal. ;

Length: 78 inches ;

M23 land mine ;

Agent: VX ;

Volume #: 1.1 gal. ;

Length: 78 inches ;

500 lb. bomb ;

Agent: GB ;

Volume #: 11.7 gal. ;

Length: 60 inches ;

750 lb. bomb ;

Agent: GB ;

Volume #: 23.8 gal. ;

Length: 50 inches ;

Spray tank ;

Agent: VX ;

Volume #: 146.6 gal. ;

Length: 185.5 inches ;

Ton container ;

Agent: HD, GB, VX ;

Volume #: 150 gal. ;

Length: 85.1 inches ;

# Volume is the amount of poison fluid n each vessel. ;

Sources: National Academy of Sciences; U.S.Army

TOMORROW

IN THE TIMES-- Scientists have found a promising alternative to burning chemical weapons: enzymes that ``eat'' the nerve agent. But the government isn't paying much attention.

FEW REMEMBER ACCIDENT

Barbara Friend, who raises ostriches near the Army depot, supports the installation and has a strong family connection: Her mother painted hand grenades there and her father drove forklifts.

Her dad, Bud Evans, was nearly killed in March 1944 - in the depot's worst accident. He was driving near an igloo full of bombs when it detonated, leaving a crater where a bunker and six workers had been.

To most people, though, the accident is long forgotten, and so is the dominance of the depot in the local economy.

The town of Ordnance, for instance, was created to house workers building the depot. But the workers are gone and one remaining resident, Don Carpenter has little good to say about the installation next door.

If there is an accident, he says,``panic's gonna rule.''

CUTLINE: ROD MAR / SEATTLE TIMES: ANDY AICHELE, WHO ONCE WORKED AT THE UMATILLA ARMY DEPOT, WORRIES ABOUT UPCOMING PLANS TO DEMOLISH CHEMICAL WEAPONS STORED AT THE SITE.

CUTLINE: RANDEE S. FOX / SEATTLE TIMES: WHAT'S IN THE DUMP: SOURCES: NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES; U.S. ARMY (FOR FULL TEXT OF CUTLINE SEE END OF TEXT)

CUTLINE: RANDEE S. FOX / SEATTLE TIMES: MILESTONES IN MAKING AND DESTROYING CHEMICAL WEAPONS: SOURCE: ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA; NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES; U.S. ARMY. (FOR FULL TEXT OF CUTLINE SEE END OF TEXT)

CUTLINE: BO HOK CLINE / SEATTLE TIMES: (MAP OF UMATILLA ARMY DEPOT -- MAP NOT AVAILABLE IN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY)

CUTLINE: KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWSPAPERS: U.S. CHEMICAL WEAPON STOCKPILES: SOURCE DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE (MAP OF UNITED STATES -- MAP NOT AVAILABLE IN ELECTRONIC LIBRARY -- FOR FULL TEXT OF CUTLINE SEE END OF TEXT)

Copyright (c) 1991 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

advertising


Get home delivery today!

Advertising