June 28, 1997 in City

Umatilla Disaster Strategy Demanded By Congressman Pentagon Told To Fix Plans For Chemical Weapons Stockpile Area

Scott Sonner Associated Press
 

Rep. Bob Smith, R-Ore., is demanding the Pentagon move quickly to correct deficiencies in emergency plans devised to protect residents near the U.S. Army’s chemical weapons stockpile in Eastern Oregon.

Army and federal disaster officials said Friday they are taking the matter seriously.

In a sternly worded letter to Army Secretary Togo West, Smith pointed to ongoing problems described in a recent General Accounting Office audit of the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston, Ore.

The Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have wasted millions of dollars because of poor coordination, Smith wrote. Bureaucratic bungling raises questions about the adequacy of emergency preparedness plans, he said.

“This program is vital to the counties surrounding the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot in Eastern Oregon and I am demanding that swift action be taken to correct flaws pointed out in the GAO report,” this week’s letter said.

Despite nine years and $431 million in federal spending, the GAO reported emergency plans for the Oregon depot remain incomplete. It cited a variety of procurement and management problems at all seven stockpiles nationwide.

The audit “clearly spells out the ramifications of this bureaucratic wrangling: limited personal protective equipment, a total absence of personnel decontamination equipment and so far, an inability to adequately” protect schools, Smith wrote.

“It’s unconscionable to me that the federal agencies’ behavior in such an important public task is the typical bureaucratic bungling and bickering,” he said. “Oregonians have every right to be fed up with it. I know I am.”

Smith, of Medford, represents the 2nd District, covering a vast area of Eastern and southern Oregon from the Idaho border to Josephine County.

J.C. Bean, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said Friday the Army is in the process of responding to the GAO’s findings.

The Army is working with GAO, FEMA, Congress members, the state and local counties “toward redesigning or realigning the long-term management structure … in hope of solidifying the cooperative relationship we built over the past several years,” she said.

“It would be premature to comment any further,” she said.

FEMA spokesman Phil Cogan said the more streamlined approach in the works would make clear that agency is in charge of off-site emergency preparedness. The new approach will be summarized in a Defense Department report to be provided to Congress on July 15.

“While all preparedness measures are not yet in place, significant progress has been made in building response capabilities around Umatilla and other chemical demilitarization sites,” he said Friday.

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