Changing the guard

A herd of antelope graze on elevated railroad tracks on the Umatilla Chemical Depot in 2003. Proposals for the 20,000-acre site once weapons destruction ends have included maintaining it as a natural area, using it for military training or industrial development.<BR><I>EO file photo</i>

The next few years at the Umatilla Chemical Depot are spelled out in detail: Destroy the site's mustard ton containers - the last chemical weapon left to incinerate there. Begin taking down its chemical disposal facility. Finally, shut down the depot, expected to happen by 2012 or 2013.

That's where things get less certain.

Once the depot's last mission is done, the question remains of what to do with the 20,000-acre site after the U.S. Department of Defense turns it over. The Local Re-use Authority - a 12-member group charged with answering that question - has stepped up its efforts toward that end in recent months.

Bill Hansell, a Umatilla County commissioner and chair of the LRA, said early ideas have landed across the spectrum. The Oregon National Guard has expressed interest in using part of the land for desert military training, he said. Tribal representatives have brought up maintaining much of the site as a natural area. Still others have inquired about industrial development or storage in the hundreds of "igloo" structures that will remain on site after the depot closes.

Kim Puzey said he expects some combination of those.

"It's going to be a collaborative decision, and I think that's what the Department of Defense intends," said Puzey, general manager at the Port of Umatilla and LRA member. "I think we're going to have an interesting mixed-use facility."

For his part, Puzey said he'd like to see economic and industrial development on at least some of the area, particularly around the perimeter - close to Interstate 84, Interstate 82 and the Columbia River. As for the interior, he said he'd defer to the expertise of other parties involved.

Hansell pointed to the South for possible inspiration: the England Air Force Base in central Louisiana.

Closed in 1992, the base has since transformed into something of an economic potpourri. That includes various businesses, a golf course, an air park and even a senior living community.

A case like that, designed to benefit both Umatilla and Morrow counties, could be a "self-sustaining" solution, Hansell said.

"It seems to me that, at this point, that would be the best example," he added.

But any preliminary ideas at this juncture are just that - preliminary.

The LRA has yet to hear any formal proposals on the future of the depot. But the first, coming from the Oregon National Guard, should happen at the group's next meeting in July, said LRA member and CTUIR engineer Rod Skeen.

"That's kind of the first thing that's ever been put forward," he said.

A long road

The LRA was first formed more than a decade ago, but became officially recognized by the federal government in January, Hansell said. Much of the work since then has focused on organizational issues like seeking grant money and getting contracted help to draw up an official re-use plan, as directed by the LRA.

And the group continues to work through layers of government screening requirements. At last month's meeting, members delved into environmental issues, Hansell said.

Once it starts looking ahead, the LRA will need to have its final re-use plan ready well before the depot closure process finishes - a "must" to have the land turned over, Hansell said.

But until now, the group has largely devoted its effort toward getting ready to do the real work, Skeen said. The formal proposals on what to do with the site should start coming in during the next few months, he added.

"This is an opportunity for dreamers to come in, or visionaries," Hansell said. "There are people out there that might have some ideas that nobody here has even thought of."

The end result is still anyone's guess.

"I'm not willing to say anything's off the table," Hansell said, "as long as it benefits the citizens."

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