Last of Northwest's chemical weapons headed to incinerator

Oct 21, 2011

HERMISTON, Ore. – It's almost done. For 70 years the Umatilla Chemical Depot has stored deadly weapons of one kind or another. That very real danger has always been in the background of the nearby northeast-Oregon community of Hermiston.

But the base also provided a home for families, jobs and stability for the region’s economy, some of which will be lost after the last truckload of mustard agent roared toward the incinerator on Thursday.

Lieutenant Colonel Kris Perkins is the last in a long line of commanders at the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot. He seemed pretty glad to be rid of the last container of mustard agent at a ceremony marking the day.

"Good morning. This is a big morning for everyone," he said. "I was telling someone earlier that I feel like I’m going off to prom or something."

Safe, despite weapons

The depot once stored 4,000 tons of deadly chemical agents here. At one time, it was 12 percent of the nation's stockpile.

Workers have methodically dismantled bombs filled with stuff like sarin and VX agent. Now, just one ton of the mustard remains to be dispatched.

But to those who know this place best, the depot is more than just a deadly-weapons storage space. It's home. And a safe one. At least for Lt. Col. Perkins and his wife and three children.

"You know they're not going to know what to do when we get back to a neighborhood," he says. "So they don't have hundreds of acres to ride bikes and play; and me and the wife feel pretty confident doing that because of the 24-7 security."

Workers will be laid off

Workers at the ceremony all appeared both relieved that the job was just about over, but also wistful. About 1,000 workers will need to look for new jobs now. Some will stay behind to dismantle the giant chemical incinerator and ready the depot for closure.

Dennis Cooper is the driver who shuttled the last ton-container to the incinerator. He says workers at the depot have formed tight bonds like family.

"I think the fact that we deal with deadly chemicals on a daily basis that it makes you a little closer because you are constantly aware of what's going on around you and you’re always watching out for your other co-workers," Cooper says. "And when you are that close and you do what you do, you build a natural camaraderie.

Future of chemical site

The Army and a group of stakeholders from the region are working on a plan for the 20,000 acres after the site is decommissioned. Current plans call for some of the site to be used for commercial ventures.

Another large part of the land will go to the Oregon National Guard. And another chunk of the land, once used to store deadly weapons, will be protected as a wildlife refuge.

On the Web:

Copyright 2011 Northwest Public Radio