SEATTLE – For nearly 50 years, it was the deathtrap next door: 3,717 tons of nerve gas and blister agent, a big part of America’s chemical weapons stockpile, stored at a depot near the town of Hermiston, Ore.
On the last Tuesday of every month, 76 large sirens mounted on 50-foot poles across three counties would emit a blast of sweet-sounding Westminster chimes, followed by a reassurance that this was only a drill – if not, a loud blare would have sounded and residents would have known that a plume of some of the deadliest poison on Earth was headed their way.
This week, the sirens sounded for the last time – only hours after the last of the stockpile at the Army’s Umatilla Chemical Depot was successfully incinerated. The end of the three-year disposal effort marked one of the closing chapters for the nation’s once-massive buildup of weapons of mass destruction.
The last ton of mustard agent at Umatilla was successfully torched at 9:17 a.m. Tuesday, leaving the U.S. with just three of nine original chemical weapons storage sites, the last of which is scheduled for full disposal by 2023. Even deadlier caches of VX and sarin nerve agent were destroyed earlier at the northern Oregon facility.
“It’s a great thing for a community to have that hazard gone, and we can have one less thing to worry about,” Jodi Florence of Umatilla County Emergency Management, part of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, said in an interview.
“Today, the employees of the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility made their mark on history by completing agent destruction operations,” Gary Anderson, site project manager, said in a statement. “More than 1,000 dedicated Army and contractor employees have made Oregon safer for its citizens.”
Umatilla had sheltered 12 percent of the nation’s original chemical arsenal since 1962. But with the end of the Cold War and a 1993 international convention outlawing the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons, work to destroy the deadly agents began in 2004.
It was a formidable task: Liquid poisons had been loaded into rockets, bombs, warheads, artillery shells and mines – and designed to vaporize when exploded – so engineers had to design an incineration facility that wouldn’t be as dangerous as the weapons themselves.
Even a drop of some deadly nerve agents on the skin can produce a quick, miserable death.
Disaster scenarios suggested that a major earthquake at the facility, followed by fire, could send a plume of poisonous residue as far as Spokane, Portland or Seattle.
Most of the deaths in any accident, though, were forecast to occur in the small towns of northern Oregon and southern Washington that surround the facility and have depended on it for about 1,300 well-paying jobs.
The deadline under the international convention for destroying stockpiles is 2012, but the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks propelled the Army into a different kind of urgency, with the storage depots around the country potentially inviting targets for attack or plunder.
Various technologies were studied, with the Army settling on a process of incineration in furnaces capable of reaching 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit, enough to rapidly destroy the poisons, with slightly less intense furnaces to melt their metal containers with little danger of release.
In the end, the warning sirens never got beyond the soothing Big Ben test chimes and the subsequent reassurance.