Where WMDs really are: Oregon | TheUnion.com

Where WMDs really are: Oregon

I was driving along Interstate 84 between Salem and Pendleton, Ore., Saturday afternoon when I ran across the weapons of mass destruction.

Workers were busy destroying them just outside the town of Hermiston, home to more than 14,000 men, women and children. Hermiston is a stone’s throw from Hat Rock State Park, which was named by Lewis and Clark 199 years ago today as the two travelers were making their way along the Columbia River.

You don’t expect to find weapons of mass destruction in a place like that. Iraq, yes. North Korea, certainly. Even the Yucca Mountains of Nevada might be better suited for such things, which is why the federal government wants to dump its nuclear waste there.

But not Hermiston. Not anywhere near such beautiful countryside, under the very shadows of the Blue Mountains, of all places.

The weapons are stored and destroyed at a place called the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Umatilla is the name of the county and comes from the Indian term “rippling water,” which seems an odd contradiction in terms. The Army should have thought about that a little bit more before naming its depot after something intended to describe the once pristine fishing ways of the Columbia River. Maybe there’s an Indian term for “rippling nerve gas,” but I doubt it.

Protesters spent years trying to keep the government from burning the chemical weapons near Hermiston. But judges denied the requests and more than 90,000 rockets, as well as thousands of other munitions containing nerve and blister agents, are slated to be burned over the next six years, according to the East Oregonian, a daily newspaper that has been covering that issue extensively over the years.

“We’re pleased that agent operations can continue,” one program administrator told the newspaper last month. Some 515 Sarin-filled M55 rockets had been destroyed at the depot in the first month, according to the newspaper. It sounds like our government needed look no further than Hermiston to find the much-sought-after WMDs.

“Each rocket contains about a gallon of liquid agent, most of which is drained from each rocket before the rocket is chopped into pieces and dropped into a high temperature furnace,” read the story. “Any residual agent left in the rocket is incinerated along with the rocket, but the bulk of the agent is stored in a tank.”

While that goes on, county officials are installing portable air recirculation filters in 15 day-care centers, just in case one of those rockets springs a leak and nerve gas is released and comes looking for Hermiston’s children.

“It seems like the right thing to do,” one county commissioner told the East Oregonian. My friend said every home in Hermiston has Internet access so that the depot officials can quickly notify them if nerve gas starts heading their way.

And if there was an accident, residents would be asked to leave their homes as soon as the air outside was clear. That’s because the air inside their home would start to get a little … let’s say … bad.

It’s good to know the government is watching out for the good folks of Hermiston and giving away free air filters and Internet access. Nothing like a little Internet access to ease the nerves. Better than a little nerve gas, which is not good for the nerves at all, according to the Kurds who were treated to some of it by Saddam and his men not many years ago.

Hospital workers in Hermiston are prepared for the worst, says the newspaper. They even purchased a $70,000 trailer where doctors and nurses in moon suits would work on those contaminated by the gas, if there was an accident in the weapons depot named after rippling waters.

Medical officials had a practice emergency drill earlier this month, and although they missed their deadline by an hour or so (the inflatable decontamination tent took 20 minutes to blow up), officials were generally pleased with the results.

“They looked disorganized,” one official told the East Oregonian. “But if there was a real event, the chaos would be gone.”

In other words, if nerve gas really was released into Hermiston, the medical staff wouldn’t be as nervous about that as they were during a practice run on a clear, sunny day.

OK … that makes sense … kind of … not.

I admit to being more than a little surprised to find the WMDs where I did. I hadn’t known about the depot until I happened upon it and started talking to some folks who had been following it intimately. While most of us have been looking toward Iraq, the WMDs were right in the middle of Oregon. Near a place Indians once fished giant salmon.

And that seems more than a little disturbing to me.

If you’d like to learn more about these WMDs, check out the East Oregonian Web site (www.eastoregonian.info).


Jeff Ackerman is the publisher of The Union. His column appears each Tuesday.

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