The city of Hermiston, by default, has been the beneficiary of the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot while having to manage the risk to public health and safety. Fortunately, that time has come and gone. Now it is time to return the property to the region and allow the community to re-purpose the property.
In 1941, the U.S. Department of War commissioned the establishment of Umatilla Ordnance Depot in preparation for World War II, on 20,000 acres in a seemingly barren area of ground near a railroad in northeast Oregon. The total population around the site in 1940 was approximately 2,000. Today, that number is closer to 44,000.
Initially, conventional munitions and supplies were stored on the depot in 1,001 igloos, until 1962 when the Army decided to store chemical weapons there and changed its name to Umatilla Army Depot and then finally the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot.
In 1988, it was added to the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list. During the years of 1990-1994, conventional munitions were removed in plans for its eventual closure. From 2004-2011, the chemical weapons were destroyed by incineration according to the Chemical Weapons Convention and monitored by OPCW.
In 2012, the depot closed and the return of the property to local control and re-use was scheduled to happen immediately and seamlessly.
The Army was to turn over the 20,000 acres to the local community who went through a public process to distribute the land equitably between the Oregon National Guard, Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation via the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and a local development authority for industrial development. Up to this point, the National Guard is the only user group to receive access and rights to the property.
Hermiston and the surrounding regional municipalities have been supportive, and provided aid when possible in the development, growth and closure of the depot with little to no adverse response. Our communities developed an emergency response system for potentially catastrophic events and individually had to learn to shelter in place.
However, that ended in 2012 when the final remaining employees departed to other areas of the country. Now, the property sits idle with little to no development and the structures continue to age and become more dilapidated.
With each new government department head, there seems to be an additional hurdle to cross. This time, the Environmental Protection Agency is requiring a further study. With each new obstacle, a new delay and another community opportunity is lost.
As businesses look to locate, develop and invest in our local community, the unknowns related to timeline for transition continues to hinder the development of this community asset.
For 30 years, it’s been on the BRAC list and programmed for closure. The time has come for the federal government to return the land to the local community for redevelopment.
David Drotzmann is mayor of Hermiston.