Environment

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

The U.S. army has controversial plans to burn chemical weapons in Oregon

KEN MACQUEEN August 25 2003
Environment

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

The U.S. army has controversial plans to burn chemical weapons in Oregon

KEN MACQUEEN August 25 2003

A FAREWELL TO ARMS

Environment

The U.S. army has controversial plans to burn chemical weapons in Oregon, writes KEN MACQUEEN

THE WAR in Iraq is waged in another desert half a world away, but at A. C. Houghton Elementary School in Irrigon, an arid little town in northeast Oregon, there are regular chemical weapons drills. The results can be scary. Teachers rush the 396 students into the gymnasium, a retreat stocked with emergency rations and pressurized to stop the entry of outside air. Sometimes they’re not fast enough. Once, 12 students didn’t make it into the gym before the door slammed shut. Another time, teacher Gail Horning’s entire class of 20 was locked out. “My second-graders had to stand out in the hall and have kids scream when we tried to open the door,” she says. “Oh, it was just terrible. They had nightmares.”

The chemicals they fear are some of the same sorts of “weapons of mass destruction” that the U.S. and British governments say are part of the justification for invading Iraq in March. While occupying troops there have yet to find Saddam Hussein or his alleged cache, such weapons are stocked in abundance at the Umatilla Chemical Depot on the dusty outskirts of Irrigon. They’re waiting to be destroyed on site, in a much-delayed US$2.4billion incineration program.

Thousands of canisters hold mustard blister agent, an oily liquid variant of the gas used with deadly effect in the First World War. There are even more potent nerve agents: GB (also known as sarin) and VX. The U.S. army describes both as “odorless and tasteless,” though confirming that would likely be your last act on earth. Minute amounts of either cause nausea, unconsciousness, seizures, paralysis and, in army lingo, “cessation of respiration.”

The nerve agents are packed variously into 156 spray tanks meant to be suspended from aircraft, 11,685 land mines, 2,445 large bombs, 97,717 explosive projectiles and 105,888 potentially unstable M55 rockets. The chemicals can corrode the aging munitions. Some 109 “leakers” have been found since 1984. They are stored separately

and monitored constantly. All are kept in dirt-covered concrete structures known as igloos. They rise in orderly rows of humps from the sage and tumbleweed of the desert floor, not six kilometres from A.C. Houghton school.

After a morning of summer school, Homing and fellow teachers Judy Brown and Marilyn Post sit on tiny chairs in a junior classroom and ponder the prospect of an accident or terrorist attack on the depot. It goes without saying that anyone left outside that gymcrying students, frantic parents— risks death, while the teachers inside play God. “We’re locked down,” says Brown, who teaches Grade 3. “We have bullet-proof glass, and all of our doors are locked, and we let no one in.” As awful as that prospect is, there are worse ones. What if the children have left school? What if they’re home alone?

THE ARSENAL, mostly relics of the Cold War, presents a frightening and wonderful conundrum. Frightening because the 2,800 tonnes of agent in this depot alone—and there are seven more across the U.S.—could kill millions under the right (which is to say, the wrong) conditions. And wonderful, because sanity prevailed. The weapons, shipped in secrecy to the depot between 1962 and 1969, were never used. Congress ordered their destruction in the mid1980s, as part of a nationwide program now expected to cost US$24 billion. The U.S. and Canada are among 153 signatories of the Chemical Weapons Convention that came into force in April 1997, mandating destruction of chemical stockpiles. Destroying America’s chemical weapons stock—especially those stored in populous areas—has proved a complex environmental challenge. This month, the army began burning a weapons cache at a similar incinerator in Anniston, Ala., after six years of preparation and some local outrage. Another weapons incinerator operates in isolated Tooele, Utah, and a smaller

U.S. cache was burned without major incident on a remote atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

Canada dumped much of its mustard agent into the oceans after the Second World War (page 35). Most of its remaining chemical stock was neutralized or incinerated in the early 1990s at Canadian Forces Base Suffteld, a chemical and biological weapons research facility in eastern Alberta.

As much as the three Irrigon teachers want the weapons gone, they’re horrified that chemicals and high explosives will be incinerated so close to home. The “demilitarization” complex at Umatilla looms large. It took army contractors four years to build, and bugs remain after a further two years of testing. In June, the state ordered a halt to a trial burn not involving chemical agents

after excessive levels of the metals nickel and antimony were detected in emissions.

The first chemical weapons could be burned by the end of the year or early next year—but not if Horning can help it. She is among the plaintiffs of a lawsuit challenging the army’s incineration permit. The three teachers are members of Gasp, a group based in nearby Hermiston that advocates other means of weapons destruction, such as chemical neutralization. Post is fiercely proud of America’s role in Iraq. She’s less impressed with her army’s determination to burn chemical weapons at home. “Why does it have to be like we’re on a super highway, and we can’t get off because we’ve already started?”

Some 40,000 people live around the 8,000ha depot, in the city of Hermiston to the east

and in smaller centres dotting the heavily irrigated farmland. Most agree these weapons must go, but even that isn’t a unanimous opinion. Americans feel a new vulnerability since the terror attacks of Sept. 11,2001, and there are some who question the wisdom of destroying any part of their nation’s military arsenal. This opinion isn’t shared by Lt.-Col. Fred Pellissier, 46, who left in July after completing a turbulent two-year post as commander of the depot. Much of his military career has focused on chemical weapon

defence. “I feel it is an incredibly inhumane way of doing warfare,” said Pellissier. “I am satisfied that we’re getting rid of that darn chemical weapons stockpile, and I’m just proud to be a part of it.”

Pellissier departed before the destruction starts, but his time here was hardly uneventful. The terror strikes in New York City and Washington occurred two months after he took command. Umatilla went from a “sleepy hollow,” he says, to a potential target. Some 200 National Guard troops now bolster depot defences. “It was quite a challenge just to ensure that we could maintain not only the security of the stockpile but the public trust as well.”

The Umatilla depot has been a dominant force in the area since its construction in 1941 in the months before Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the Second World War. Then, its 1,001 igloos held conventional weapons, a role it fulfilled until the last of the non-chemical arsenal was moved in 1994. It has long been one of the region’s major employers, but for years the arrival of chemical weapons in the 1960s was a military secret. “We never knew they were here,” says Hermiston-born Karyn Jones, a founder of Gasp. “When I went to school, there was never any emergency preparedness. No drills. Nothing.” She doesn’t buy the army’s assurances that the incinerator will destroy 99.9999 per cent of the agent, leaving little but water vapour to escape up the smokestack. Jones, who manages her father’s dental practice, acknowledges a few patients have left because of her outspoken opposition. Others have questioned her patriotism. “I try not to take it personally,” she says. “But sometimes you do.”

ENTERING THE DEPOT’S weapons destruction area is a daunting proposition. Visitors, like staff, carry respirators to buy a few minutes to flee if sirens warn of a catastrophic leak. There are sandbagged guard bunkers and extra layers of fencing carrying the warning, “Use of deadly force authorized.” Other signs say, “No smoking in vehicles,” a commitment to air quality that

seems quaint in the circumstances.

The facility is a post-apocalyptic maze of oversized plumbing, concrete and robotics. There’s a constant roar of fanatically scrubbed and monitored air. The main control room, lined with computers, monitors and sensors of every sort, is staffed with enough geek-power to launch a rocket. This day, that’s pretty much what they’re up to.

An M55 rocket is 1.98 m long. It is packed with a nitroglycerine-based propellant, and a high-explosive warhead surrounded by almost five kilograms of liquid nerve agent. In an era of computer-guided missiles, it’s a death-delivery system as inaccurate and obsolete as its chemical payload is unpalatable. Today, one dies.

A hatch opens. The rocket, in its fibreglass shipping tube, trundles on a conveyor into a sealed, explosive containment room. Clamps halt its progress. Probes punch into the warhead, draining, vampirelike, most of its liquid cargo, flushing it into a 1,500 ° C furnace. The rocket lumbers forward, a shear guillotines off its fuse, dropping it down a chute into a deactivation furnace. Crunch, crunch, the rocket is eaten in increments. Not much will emerge but ash and aluminum scrap. A weapon is no more. For those without a personal stake in the local incineration debate, it’s a powerful swordsinto-plowshares moment. It’s one thing to read about an arms control treaty, and quite another to see the process at work.

This, however, is a test rocket, loaded with glycol, not sarin. When the real burn starts this room will be sealed. The destruction is controlled robotically. Cleaning or repair will be done by teams of two, sealed into pressurized suits before entering. They’ll emerge to be decontaminated and cut from their suits. These, too, will be fed to the flames. It will take up to six years, working day and night, to destroy this arms cache. Clean-up will take at least three more. Then the depot will close. The facility’s mandate is to destroy itself. Parts of it will be consumed or detoxified in its own incinerators in a final act of immolation.

SEVERAL HOURS AFTER the M55’s demise, chemist Don Barclay, a civilian member of the U.S. army and the Umatilla site project manager, stands on a hill above the massive facility and the otherworldly rows of igloos. His army career has achieved a kind of karmic balance: 10 years managing pro-

duction at an ammunition plant, and a decade preoccupied with chemical weapons destruction. He has tested the neutralization processes to be used at some of the other weapons depots in the U.S., but he has faith in this incinerator as well.

Barclay sees the plant erasing a shadow of risk from the local and global community. He hopes that one day his three daughters, maybe some grandchildren, will be shocked to learn that the United States once stored such “nasty stuff.” And that they’ll appreciate “their dad, their granddad, was part of getting rid of it.” He has another dream, too, even though it seems an unlikely one for this desolate, sun-blasted place with an as-yetundecided future. It’s 2010, he says with a sweep of an arm, and all the igloos are empty, the incinerator is gone and the land is clean. We’re standing right here, he says, “and we see a children’s playground.”

The winds are often brutal and today one strains to catch Barclay’s words as they’re ripped from his mouth. The winds are another thing people here don’t agree on. Maybe they’d dissipate a leak long before it reached the perimeter fence. Or maybe they’d blow poison into the next county.

Casey Beard’s job is preparing for the latter scenario. He’s director of emergency

management in Morrow County, one of two counties touching depot lands. He figures first responders have 10 minutes to get some control over a chemical disaster, before it controls them. Beard, resplendent in cowboy boots and a white hat, spent 20 years in the army, including a tour as an intelligence officer during the first Gulf war, Desert Storm. He donned chemical gear in a hellish hurry then, and he knows civilians

IT WAS QUITE a challenge just to ensure that we could maintain not only the security of the stockpile, but the public trust as well’

need every edge he can give them.

He has helped spend a fortune in federal funds. The dispatch centre in the Morrow County seat of Heppner has an imposing array of equipment to track chemical plumes. If there’s no time to get there, responders can run the show from hand-held wireless com-

puters. Not bad toys for a county without even a single traffic light. Homes and businesses are equipped with “tone alert” radios that can snap on in a disaster to offer instructions and information. Emergency officials can cut into television and radio programming, flash warnings on highway reader boards, even broadcast from the community network of sirens. Homes near the depot have so-called shelter-in-place kits, including duct tape, towels and plastic to seal up a safe room. Morrow is the only county to equip homes near the depot with high-powered air cleaners.

All this is to convince folks to stay put. Any computer model where people try to outrun a chemical cloud ends in traffic chaos. “If you try to evacuate and you don’t make it,” Beard says, “that’s the worst of all possible worlds.”

To run? To stay? That’s the kind of kitchentable talk families have in this desert, where the chemical weapons are a reality—not just the stuff of headlines about a fading threat in a distant land. “I’m going to drive away,” says Judy Brown, the teacher, without hesitation. Marilyn Post nods in glum agreement. “Unless we’re in the school,” adds Gail Horning. “Then we’ll be in the gym.” If they get there on time. I?]