Jared Beatty takes potshots at the enemy on a TV screen in his room. He practices daily for his future career as a spy by playing James Bond video games on his Sony PlayStation. In the corner of his room, his two fire-belly frogs, Carmichael and Tortelli, lounge in a glass aquarium. Overhead, models of jet fighters shoot mock missiles at one another. His bedroom overlooks the family’s two acres and five llamas on the banks of the Columbia River in Irrigon, Oregon, a small but growing rural community 150 miles east of Portland.

If a career as a spy doesn’t work out, Jared has a fall back job in mind as a stock car mechanic. Like his older brother, Brandon, he races dirt bikes. When his father drives Jared to the Tri Cities for one of his motocross meets, they take Interstate 84 past the 20,000 acres of the Umatilla Chemical Depot (UMCD). Living in the shadow of the depot and its 1,001 storage bunkers, the 11-year-old boy has been forced to face realities of a world he cannot yet understand.

The depot stores 12 percent of the nation’s chemical weapons. Its rockets, bombs and mines are filled with enough mustard agent, VX nerve agent and sarin to kill tens of thousands of people. In April 1997 the U.S. Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty outlawing chemical weapons. Because of the agreement, the site has a new mission: to incinerate its stockpile by 2007. The idea of incinerating chemical weapons has some members of the community feeling uneasy; the facility has been plagued by a series of problems including bomb threats, a flawed warning system and chemical leaks. Others welcome the jobs the project provides and believe incineration is a safe way to dispose of the depot’s cache.

As Jared talks about the depot, his brow furrows the way an adult’s does, the lines bunching up on his forehead. "The war wasn’t here. How come (the depot) had to be in Irrigon?"

The region must have looked ideal when the U.S. Army arrived in 1941: far enough inland to be safe from a Japanese attack, yet strategically located next to the Columbia River. The depot began as a storage and transfer point for some of the nation’s conventional arsenal. The first shipment of chemical weapons arrived in 1962. Although most of the bunkers now lie empty, a storage area known as K Block holds the remaining munitions in 89 steel-reinforced concrete igloos. Two 10 foot fences topped with razor wire surround the bunkers, and armed mobile security units patrol with shoot to kill orders. The weapons they protect are so terrible the United States never used them against an enemy.

More than 700,000 pounds of VX nerve agent are stored in K Block. Less than a drop of the odorless liquid can cause the central nervous system to shut down if it is not treated immediately. Two million pounds of sarin are housed there as well. Twelve people died and 5,000 people were injured when the Japanese doomsday cult Aum Shinri Kyo used the nerve agent to attack a Tokyo subway in 1995. Mustard agent, 2,635 tons of it, rounds out the deadly trio of weapons. The Germans first used this persistent chemical during World War I with horrific results. Soil samples taken from battlefields in France showed lingering traces of this carcinogenic substance 80 years later.

Jared and his classmates go through monthly emergency drills at school.
Jared fights imaginary wars in his video games, but his fears of the depot are real. "One time I had a dream," he says. "The alarm went off, and I was locked outside of the house, and they wouldn’t let me in." When his school began emergency preparedness drills in case of an accident, he bought a gas mask with his allowance. At show-and-tell, he demonstrated how to put it on for his classmates. Some of them had parents working at the depot.

The UMCD pumps more than $9 million a year into the area’s economy in wages alone. Everybody in the county seems to have a friend or relative who works or has worked at the installation. Government, civilian and private employees at the depot live off base in neighboring communities. Next door to K Block, the Army has contracted the Raytheon Corporation to build a $1.2 billion complex of incinerators to burn this stockpile. Employing approximately 1,000 construction and administration workers, and fueled by millions of federal dollars, the disposal facility has created a mini boom in the area’s economy.

According to Mary Binder, the depot’s public information officer, incineration is the only technology proven to destroy chemical weapons. "Incineration to date is the only process we know of (that disposes of) not only the chemical itself in the ammunition, but also the explosives, the casings and what we call the dunnage, or the packing materials that go with it." Yet prompted by public opposition and a report by the National Research Council in favor of alternatives to burning, the Army has agreed to build prototype chemical neutralization plants at depots in Aberdeen, Maryland, and Newport, Indiana.

Despite this new movement toward alternative technologies, construction on the incinerator complex continues in Umatilla. But the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) announced on April 19, 2000, that the incinerator would not begin test burns in January 2001 as expected. A perimeter air monitoring system required to be in place for a full year is still undergoing testing. The Army has until June 7, 2000, to present a new operations timetable to the DEQ.

Before construction began nobody thought much about the weapons. The residents of Umatilla County weren’t even aware of the nerve agents at the depot until the early seventies, when then-Gov. Tom McCall halted the Army’s plans to ship additional chemical weapons to the depot. Many people in this rural area see no reason to distrust the Army.

But one neighbor doesn’t trust the Army; she believes the safety of her town is her business. Karyn Jones grew up in Hermiston, just 10 miles from the depot. She was as nonchalant about the depot as her neighbors until she took a trip to Hawaii, where a friend told Jones of her struggle to shut down a chemical weapons incinerator on the nearby Johnston Atoll. When the Army announced plans to build an incinerator in Umatilla, Jones believed she had to act. She now leads GASP, a citizens’ environmental group responsible for a lawsuit aimed at revoking the Umatilla incinerator’s construction and operation permits. "No one has any idea what constant low-level exposure from those chemicals will be like," says Jones. She strongly believes that the possibility of a cloud of nerve gas being released into the atmosphere is another reason to halt the project. "In the case of a catastrophic accident I think there’s going to be a significant death rate," she says.

Jared’s mother, Cindy, also is afraid of the possible consequences of incineration. She is one of almost two dozen cosigners, including the Sierra Club, on the GASP lawsuit. "I feel I owe it to my children and their health," she says.

Jared says kids have gotten used to the monthly test sirens at school. "You hear it, and people just keep on playing," he says. Teachers herd the older kids, including Jared, into the gym. The younger kids take shelter in the cafeteria. The Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) spent millions of federal dollars to equip the gymnasiums and cafeterias of the 11 area schools with pumps and air filters intended to create sealed and pressurized environments safe from exposure.

Jared says there was a broken window in the gym during one such drill. The opening could have rendered the system useless had it been a real emergency. He imagines life inside the gym during an emergency: "Stored frozen food for three days, and then you go home and see your two dogs lyin’ dead in the kennel."

Jared isn’t the only one concerned about the drills. "I’ve had teachers tell me their biggest fear is running down the hall with their children and (finding) the door is sealed up. It doesn’t matter if you’re six feet away — they will have to shut the door or risk everyone being contaminated and potentially killed," says Jones.

"I cannot see myself willingly coming back to (this area) if the facility is in operation," Jones says. She fully expects GASP’s lawsuit to revoke the incinerator’s operating permits. "I would be concerned driving down the highway and passing it. If this was being built in Salem, Portland or Eugene they would have never gotten away with any of this nonsense. I feel personally betrayed."

Binder says the Army is proud of the history of the depot and the support it has gotten from the community. "The risks, although they’re small, of continued storage are greater than the risks of disposal of this ammunition," she says.

The Army operates another incinerator in Tooele, Utah, 35 miles from Salt Lake City. In December 1998 approximately 140 gallons of sarin spilled while being fed into the incinerator, raising questions about the safety of operations. At a National Press Club news conference on January 11, 2000, Gary Harris, a former chief permit coordinator at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, claimed that test burn reports were falsified to avoid revealing that the incinerator could not safely burn the agent found in many munitions. "As permit coordinator I was directed to submit modifications to the plant that did not comply with federal law. I reported health, safety and environmental issues to the contractor and the Army, which I was directed not to bring to the attention of the State under the threat of losing my job."

On January 12, the Pentagon said it was confident Harris’ allegations would be proven untrue. "The citizens of Utah and of the United States can rest assured that the Army will continue its mission to effectively and safely eliminate this country’s stockpile of obsolete chemical weapons," said the Army. "This mission will be completed, and the Army will provide maximum protection to the human health and the environment."

Residents of Umatilla have their own reasons to be concerned about the safety of incineration. A mysterious illness struck 36 workers at the Umatilla incinerator construction site on September 15, 1999. Overcome by fumes, some of them began to cough, choke and vomit. Initially the Army thought a possible cause for the illness was toxic fumes created by the heating of materials during the normal construction process. Weeks later Raytheon released a statement saying it found pepper spray contamination in clothing samples, but a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) analysis failed to confirm those findings.

Jones demands to know why the Army can’t positively identify the sickness-inducing agent. "It’s these same people that want us to believe they can safely burn chemical weapons while protecting our community -- I don’t think so."
"From the very beginning there was no reason to believe that the chemical weapons stored at the depot were the cause for the incident," says Binder. "All of the records from monitoring have been reviewed by OSHA and the governor’s commission, as well as other independent evaluators. Every one has supported the depot’s initial finding that chemical agents were not involved in that incident."

Still, Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio shares Jones’ concerns. He wrote to Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber and the media on January 13, 2000, urging the governor to revoke the incinerator’s permits. "We all want these deadly chemicals out of our midst as quickly as possible, but we shouldn’t let the Army stampede us into accepting a chemical weapons incineration plan that poses threats to our state," he wrote.

Kitzhaber responded: "I have no indication that the Oregon experience with the Army and its contractor is similar to that which Mr. Harris describes for Utah. . . . The state has established firm control of the project, and the Army and Raytheon understand that failure to provide information is absolutely unacceptable. . . . I will spare no effort to ensure the safety of our citizens before incineration begins."

The UMCD’s mission of storage and disposal is in the hands of Lt. Col. Tom Woloszyn, the commander of the base. He’s the only active duty Army officer at the depot other than one doctor on a small medical team. Woloszyn moved his family to the area less than a year ago. His youngest son, Jared’s age, drew cartoons for the depot’s newsletter. He likened the mobile detection laboratories to the ice cream truck.

Woloszyn says protection of the public, the workers and the environment are the major considerations in the depot’s storage and disposal missions. "My 180 employees can handle 99 percent of any situation that occurs out there, unless it’s a catastrophic event," he says. "Even in the event of a catastrophe there is time for people to respond according to procedures."

Each munitions handler has eight to 12 years of experience working with chemical weapons. George Newman, the chief of chemical ammunition and lab support, has complete confidence in his crew. "We know what we have; we understand what the consequences (of exposure) are," he says. "Monitoring plays a big role." His crew has a near perfect safety record; the only person ever exposed was a soldier from outside the depot. She became exposed to the chemicals while repairing a piece of equipment and was soon showing signs of exposure to sarin. Inside the bunkers the workers take great care not to touch anything unless it’s part of checking the munitions.

Crews monitor the munitions on a regular basis to determine if any of the ammunitions is leaking. Occasionally one is. On January 1, 2000, a sensor went off in a bunker storing weapons that already had been moved from their original storage igloos for emitting trace amounts of chemical vapor. A chemical surveillance crew checked the 271 munitions one by one inside the igloo. Of these, four were discovered seeping chemical vapor. Already encased in one packing sheath, the crew placed the leakers into a second layer of protective plastic wrap and returned them to their storage casket.

Leaks are a regular occurrence, happening on average every three months. John Phillips, a depot worker, stresses the leaks most often amount to a weapon emitting a minute amount of vapor. Newman says detection technology of today has come a long way. "The monitoring technology and procedures have changed. It’s all gas-chromatic; it used to be a rabbit," he says. Less than 20 years ago, a rabbit placed into the bunkers and brought out with dilated pupils meant the atmosphere was contaminated. Today mobile computerized laboratories park in front of the bunker and analyze the atmosphere inside before ever opening a bunker door.

Because of the problems the depot and incinerator facilities have already faced, some Umatilla residents, including Jared and his mother, don’t share the Army’s faith in the safety of incineration or the reliability of emergency provisions. Irrigon lies within the Immediate Response Zone (IRZ), the area closest to the depot and, if the wind is blowing the right direction, one of the areas most likely to be affected in the event of a chemical leak.

Last year, every house in Umatilla County received a shelter-in-place kit provided by CSEPP. A videotape included in the kit provides a 10 minute lesson about how to seal off a room using duct tape and plastic sheeting to prevent exposure to chemical agents. "At one point they told us we would all get a little radio that would tell us where to go and what to do," says Jared’s mother. The radios have yet to arrive. And she seriously wonders about the effectiveness of duct tape and plastic sheeting to protect her family.

Meg Capps of CSEPP prepares the public in case of an accident at the UMCD.
The CSEPP office is located just outside of the Protective Action Zone in Pendleton, Oregon. Program manager Meg Capps is in charge of preparing the public for an unlikely emergency. "We mailed the shelter-in-place kits. We send everyone calendars with emergency information. We maintain a Web site," she says. "I can provide the public with the tools, but I can’t hold their hands." As for the radios that haven’t arrived, she says it’s taken two rounds of testing to make sure they work correctly. "I’m not willing as a program manager to put them out there, take them back and put them out there again. I want it to work the first time."

For now, dozens of sirens located throughout the IRZ provide the early warning system. Piercing wails sound on the last Tuesday of each month when the system is tested. Electronic signs on Interstates 82 and 84 flash evacuation information in the case of an emergency. The system went off unexpectedly on December 30, 1999. Capps believes a Morrow County employee was trying to notify drivers of icy conditions on a reader board on Interstate 84. Inexplicably, the sirens went off, and panicked calls flooded the Hermiston Police Department. It turned out to be a false alarm. Capps says the problem was not human error but resided within the control board for the alarm system in Morrow County.

Jared and his family didn’t hear the sirens. Had it been an actual emergency, they wouldn’t have known to take shelter or evacuate. They might have been exposed to a chemical agent. Jared’s mom says she learned about the false alarm while watching TV that evening. The family watches the news about the incinerator closely and keeps track of the GASP lawsuit, which is still in the court system.

Playing in his front yard far away from the legal battles taking place, Jared seems like any other 11-year-old boy as he runs around trying to corral one of the family’s hunting dogs. He talks more about the latest video games than about gas masks, but his mood shifts from playful to somber when the subject turns to the incinerator. Asked about the future, he first says that it will be great. Then he pauses.

"I don’t know what’s going to happen. I sure don’t want an accident to happen," he says. "First thing I would definitely want to know is which way the wind was blowing. Was it blowing our way?"


Matthew Landan, a senior magazine major, once worked as a vendor at Wrigley Field in Chicago selling Cracker Jacks and cotton candy. He's had his photo in Newsweek for burning the American flag.

He is also known as NothingLasts4ever on www.everything2.com. He wrote this as his "senior thesis" at the University of Oregon's school of journalism in the spring of 2000. It earned him the cover of Flux magazine. You can see the on-line version of Flux at http://influx.uoregon.edu/2000/umatilla/umatilla1.html

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