HERMISTON -- People living in Eastern Oregon and Washington can sleep a little safer now that the Umatilla Chemical Depot officially has been put to rest.
To celebrate the occasion, the Army's chemical materials agency held a celebration Thursday night marking Umatilla's end of an era for storing dangerous chemical agents used in warfare since World War II.
About 300 people attended the event and listened to military and corporate officials pay tribute to the community's support for the depot since 1941.
"This is a historic milestone," said Gary Anderson, project manager for the site. "All the secondary waste has been removed, which brings a preservation of peace to the depot."
The 20,000-acre site eventually will be turned back into public use and hopefully provide some job opportunities, he added.
A handful of dignitaries also attended, including John Nerger, the executive deputy to the commanding general of the Army.
"More than seven million pounds of chemical agents were disposed of safely during the last 50 years," Nerger said. "It's been a difficult job and (the depot) helped eliminate the country's stockpile of agents, and it was done well. And I thank you all for being Army strong."
Though the last of the dangerous chemical agents, such as GB and VX nerve gas and mustard blister agent, were removed and disposed of by Oct. 25, there still is some work to be done at the site, said Lt. Col. Kris Perkins.
"About 220,000 containers were stored at the depot, and that's 12 percent of the nation's chemical waste," he said.
Perkins also paid tribute to the six people who lost their lives at the depot on March 21, 1944, when there was an explosion while storing bombs in one of the site's chemical weapons igloos.
Don Barclay, acting director of the Army's Chemical Materials Agency, praised the depot's workers for their diligence and unfaltering work ethic and recounting how workers stayed the course when a freak tornado struck in 2006, knocking out primary power and the backup generator.
"The work force returned to facility to safeguard the depot during that outage," Barclay said. "They didn't quit in the face of failure."
Conrad Whyne, a former director of the depot, also extolled the dedication of the workers as they diligently went to work each day helping to eliminate public risk.
"These people served quietly and kept this community safe," Whyne said.
Most of those workers will be out of a job by next year.
"A land use committee has already been formed, made up of members from Morrow, Umatilla counties and the Umatilla tribe," said Hal McCune, an Army spokesman. "Half of the buildings will be torn down once they're clean, but some will remain once the land is given back for public land use. And hopefully, that will include a few more job opportunities."
Pat Mohondro, the environmental site manager for the depot, said crews will continue to scrape out the insides of the chemical weapons igloos to insure all residue is removed and the area is clean. The Oregon Environmental Quality Commission also is on site working with the Army to ensure that happens.
Mark Evans, president of the Washington Demilitarization Company, told the crowd there was plenty of heartache, humor, grace and heroes.
"I am proud to be a part of this important chapter to eliminate the stockpile of chemical weapons disposal," he said. "And even though it's not over yet, and there's still some work to do, I'm proud of the responsible way its been handled."
Anderson also was given a special service award from the Army for his dedication to duty and outstanding leadership through the project.