HERMISTON -- Within a matter of days, the risk of a chemical weapons accident at the Umatilla Chemical Depot should be gone.
Sirens for a chemical weapons emergency will sound next week for their final monthly test in southern Benton, Umatilla and Morrow counties.
The household tone alert radios distributed for chemical weapons emergencies soon will be good only for weather warnings. All the home shelter-in-place emergency kits with rolls of plastic, duct tape and scissors won't be needed to seal up windows in case of a chemical weapons accident.
Already, for the first time in 70 years, what's now the Umatilla Chemical Depot is not being used to store Army munitions. The depot is about 40 miles south of Kennewick between interstates 82 and 84 in Oregon.
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First the conventional weapons, which arrived just before the United States entered World War II, were shipped off site by the mid-'90s. Thursday, the last container of stored chemical weapons was delivered to the onsite incineration plant.
This week, the last of the chemical weapons stored there for 49 years are expected to be destroyed.
"It's a bit of a bittersweet moment," said Chris Brown, Oregon director of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, or CSEPP, at a celebration last week.
He is thankful that the chemical weapons stored there are nearly gone. The nerve gas once kept in earth-covered storage igloos at the depot was so deadly that a drop could kill within a matter of minutes.
But the end of chemical weapons also means the loss of more than 1,000 jobs, with the exodus starting soon and building to a peak in 2013.
Not only the Hermiston area will feel the loss, but the Tri-Cities could too.
The number of workers on the project who commute from the Tri-Cities approaches 50 percent, said Bruce Sorte, an Oregon State University economist. And there will be fewer Hermiston-area residents with money to spend in the Tri-Cities, a regional hub for shopping, dining and entertainment.
In addition, the region has benefited from federal money to bolster emergency management, which no longer will be available. In Oregon, CSEPP funding for 2011 was $14 million, up from $11.5 million the year before, to help pay for close out of the program. Benton County also has received money it has come to count on for emergency management.
For more than 20 years, CSEPP has paid for equipment, training and buildings, leaving a legacy of improved emergency response in the region.
7.4M pounds destroyed
There was some wistfulness as workers celebrated the last shipment of chemical weapons agent to the incineration plant Thursday.
"An era is going away," said Bob Toliver, who worked at the depot in the '70s and returned in 2006 to work in badging.
But there mostly was pride.
"We got rid of the nasty gas," he said.
"This is a wonderful day," said Thomas Roberts, who works at the depot's emergency operations center. "Being an individual who has lived in this area most of my life and who is raising my children here, it marks a day they are safer."
The depot once stored 12 percent of the nation's stockpile of chemical weapons.
Incineration began in fall 2004 to meet a deadline of the Chemical Weapons Convention international treaty to destroy the depot's entire inventory of 7.4 million pounds of chemical agent by April 29, 2012.
Burning started with the most volatile chemical stored at the depot, liquid GB nerve agent in rockets. Then bombs and projectiles with the nerve agent were destroyed. Next up was liquid VX nerve agent, much of it also in weapons.
That work was completed in late 2008 and the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility was retrofitted to process mustard blister agent, which is toxic, but less lethal than the nerve gas. But there was a lot of it. The nearly 4.7 million pounds of mustard blister agent stored in bulk containers made up more than half of the depot's stockpile by weight.
After more than seven years of processing chemical weapons, the last of 2,635 containers of mustard blister agent is expected to be sent through the incineration plant's metal parts furnace to burn any residue that remained after draining.
Another two or three days will be needed to incinerate the mustard agent recently drained from containers, said Hal McCune, protocol manager for the disposal facility.
The Army is expected to declare the depot's mission complete about two weeks later when the lines at the disposal facility are flushed.
"They did just what they said they would do and did it without exposing the community," Sorte said.
Most jobs end in 2013
For many of the more than 300 Army depot employees, work will be nearly complete. But for the 830 workers at the incineration plant, which is managed by federal contractor URS Corp., work will transition to dismantling the plant.
"While we will meet our main objective, our work is far from over," McCune said.
Agent residue will be flushed from the plant and then equipment will be pulled out. The metal parts furnace will remain to the end.
"We will start eating ourselves" -- feeding anything contaminated with chemical weapons through the furnace, McCune said.
Extensive sampling will be done, within the building and in the soil outside, and then a subcontractor will be hired to tear down the incineration plant to meet the wishes of the state of Oregon and the Army. Uncontaminated support buildings will remain standing for possible future reuse.
Most URS employees will remain through 2012. The disposal facility plan calls for the loss of only about 100 employees next year, most in September and November.
But in 2013, most employees will need to find new work as about 550 jobs are cut in layoffs in January, May and August. Most of the remaining employees will leave as demolition is completed and regulatory requirements met through 2014.
For government employees of the depot, some will leave through early retirement at the end of December. Others will receive reduction in force notices starting Jan. 30. By June 3, just 79 will remain.
Closeout and cleanup work also remains to be done at the depot.
More than 800 of the 1,001 storage igloos at the depot -- many of them visible from the interstates -- were used for conventional munitions. They have been swept, vacuumed and had samples of their dust analyzed before being locked and sealed.
The igloos that held chemical weapons also are being cleaned now that storage has ended and air inside them is being monitored for chemical weapon agent down to parts per trillion.
"We have not found any yet," said Phillip Ferguson, base transition coordinator.
The Army plans to leave buildings, except the incineration plant, standing for possible reuse.
It also is continuing work started in the late '80s on environmental cleanup of the 20,000-acre depot, with two units still needing work completed.
At the west end, an ammunition demolition area still has buried munitions that need to be removed.
The depot also has ground water contamination from explosives, including TNT, near the former bomb washout plant. A system to pump up the water, clean it and inject it back into the ground has cleaned the ground water near the former plant to industrial standards.
To get to residential ground water standards -- even though that use is not planned at the depot -- a bioremediation project has been added to supplement pump and treat. Corn syrup is being injected underground to feed microbes and build up a colony to clean up the remaining contamination.
Some of the 20,000 acres of the depot are planned to be developed for industrial use, helping to replace some of the jobs that are lost.
The reuse plan, developed by county, port and tribal leadership and adopted by the Army, calls for about 7,400 acres to be turned over to the Oregon National Guard. That includes the firing range and the area used for ammunition demolition. The guard is expected to start moving into some buildings in February.
The next largest portion, 5,600 acres, will be left natural for a wildlife refuge to preserve some of the best shrub steppe habitat left in the Columbia Basin. It includes nesting areas for two species of concern, the long-billed curlew and the burrowing owl, Ferguson said.
A nesting program has increased the burrowing owl population from four nesting pairs in 2008 to 61 pairs this year, said Don Gillis, who manages environmental programs at the depot.
About 650 acres will be used for agriculture and already has been leased for farming. It is part of a land-use swap with Irrigon, allowing it to convert an area within the city for industrial use.
The remaining land has been designated for industrial use, with some in Morrow County and some in Umatilla County.
It includes the land near the center of the depot where the incineration plant now stands. The site should be attractive to industry because it has a power substation and gas pipelines, said Bill Hansell, chairman of the depot Local Reuse Authority and a Umatilla County commissioner.
In addition, land at the intersection of interstates 82 and 84 with two interstate off-ramps is planned for industrial development. It is the only area outside Portland in Oregon where two interstates intersect.
It is too soon know how the land might be used, but it could be attractive for a regional distribution center. Umatilla already is home to distribution centers for Walmart and FedEx.
Flat economy predicted
Despite the upcoming loss of jobs, Sorte does not anticipate a serious economic decline in Oregon communities near the depot.
But he does expect it to flatten the economy and prevent growth for about five years.
The region's economy has a solid economic base in agriculture, he said. In addition, food processing is expanding, and Umatilla County has capitalized on its location to attract regional distribution centers.
Many of the workers who will lose their jobs have skills working with hazardous materials that would transfer to the Hanford nuclear reservation, and URS, the incineration plant contractor, also is heavily involved in Hanford environmental cleanup.
However, how many will be able to find jobs at Hanford may depend on the federal budget, with some Hanford watchers fearing tightening federal budgets could mean more layoffs at the nuclear reservation in 2013.
"There is going to be a hit," Sorte said.
He said he expects possibly a $50 million annual loss in the Umatilla and Morrow bi-county area, possibly more, he said.
Those likely to feel the loss first are semi-skilled workers, he said. With less money being spent in the communities near the depot, waitresses, for instance, may see their hours cut back and their tips drop.
The area will do well if it can retain a third of the laid-off workers through growth of existing industry, reuse of the depot land and jobs in the Tri-Cities, he said.
He is reminding the community that workers are kept in town one by one, and that it can help by reaching out, in places ranging from churches to taverns, to show support, he said.
"A lot of economic development is personal relations and community caring," he said. "It sounds pretty touchy-feely, but it's true."