Bill would return local control of chemical depot

SALEM -- Communities near a former U.S. Army chemical weapons depot in Umatilla would regain the right to develop the property under a bill making its way through Congress.

A legal decision by the Pentagon this year effectively threw out the development plans that local officials created over a two-decade period for the Umatilla Chemical Depot, slated for closure next year. But members of the Oregon congressional delegation intervened, attaching legislation to a defense-spending bill approved last week in the House and Senate.

Federal contractors burned off the last toxic weapons in October, and crews are dismantling equipment and preparing the facility to be decommissioned.

Under the plan developed locally, part of the 31-square-mile property would be used for economic development. Other pieces would become a wildlife refuge and a facility for the Oregon National Guard.

"We're just kind of in limbo, just waiting, because we don't have any authority to do anything technically," Bill Hansell, a Umatilla County commissioner who chairs the committee that developed the plan, said before Congress approved the bill. "At least on paper, we don't exist."

The local reuse plan was crafted in consultation with federal officials under the requirements laid out by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission, which recommended in 2005 that the depot be closed. Closure under the commission's process allows the land to transferred to local governments and provides assistance to communities affected by a base closure.

But the legal opinion ruled that the base can't be handled under the commission's process because the depot wasn't ready for closure before Sept. 15, 2011, when the law authorizing its closure expired. The decision frustrated local officials, who thought the Pentagon was on board with their plan, and the area's congressional delegation.

Without going through the base-closure commission, the base could be caught up in a bureaucratic maze, or auctioned to the highest bidder, officials warned.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot for decades stored deadly chemical agents including sarin and nerve gas in some of the 1,000 underground bunkers. The weapons were outlawed under the Chemical Weapons Convention, an international treaty that took effect in 1997 and now has 188 signatories.