Umatilla to destroy last weapons. Now what?

MONDAY, JUNE 8, 2009, 8:24 A.M.

National Guard training, business development considered for 20,000-acre site

HERMISTON, Ore. — After more than 45 years, the days of the Umatilla Chemical Depot are numbered.

The depot is preparing to incinerate its hefty supply of mustard gas, the last chemical weapon stored there. The disposal facility should be taken down by 2013, but after that the future of the 20,000-acre site is less certain.

The U.S. Department of Defense will shed it. The 12-member Local Re-use Authority is stepping up efforts to decide what happens to it next.

Bill Hansell, a Umatilla County commissioner and chairman of the authority, said the Oregon National Guard has expressed interest in using part of it for desert military training.

Tribal representatives have suggested maintaining much of it as a natural area. Still others have asked about industrial development or storage in the hundreds of “igloo” structures that housed the chemical weapons.

Kim Puzey said he expects some combination of those. “It’s going to be a collaborative decision, and I think that’s what the Department of Defense intends,” said Puzey, general manager at the Port of Umatilla and LRA member. “I think we’re going to have an interesting mixed-use facility.”

Puzey said he’d like to see economic and industrial development on at least some of the area, particularly around the perimeter.

Hansell pointed to England Air Force Base in Louisiana. Closed in 1992, the base has become an economic potpourri including businesses, a golf course, an air park and a senior living community.

A case like that could be a “self-sustaining” solution, Hansell said. “It seems to me that, at this point, that would be the best example.”

The LRA has yet to hear any formal proposals. But the first, coming from the Oregon National Guard, should happen in July, said LRA member Rod Skeen. “That’s kind of the first thing that’s ever been put forward,” he said.

The LRA was formed more than a decade ago and got federal recognition in January, Hansell said.

Once it starts looking ahead, the LRA must have its final re-use plan ready before closure to have the land turned over, Hansell said.

Formal proposals are expected in the coming months.

“This is an opportunity for dreamers to come in, or visionaries,” Hansell said. “There are people out there that might have some ideas that nobody here has even thought of.”

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