HERMISTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently said that while an accident that sent more than 30 Umatilla Chemical Depot construction workers to the hospital in 1999 may not have been caused by chemical agent, it is concerned about nearly 60 readings of chemical agents from depot air monitors last summer.
In a Feb. 7 letter to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, the EPA says more tests are needed to find out why air monitoring stations on the depot show trace amounts of sarin, mustard and VX 59 times between May and July of 2000. Officials were quick to note that these amounts are significantly below the amounts the U.S. Surgeon General's office says civilians can be exposed to for a lifetime without being affected.
However, Portland lawyer James McCandlish, who is representing 18 of 34 sickened workers, believes the numbers are substantial.
"These records we just got Saturday confirm that they are leaking outside of igloos ... they are being picked up on the (depot's) periphery," McCandlish said Tuesday. He is representing the many workers who claim they were injured by the September accident.
"Meanwhile, construction workers still on-site are still in danger on a daily basis," he added.
Charts from the EPA show that low-level readings of sarin were found 56 times between May and July of 2000. Mustard was detected twice and VX once. Some may be "false positives," readings that are disproved by another sampling tube in the same station.
The workers allege they were sickened by exposure to chemical agent while on that day while constructing a complex that should begin destroying the depot's store of chemical weapons in late 2002. At the time of the incident, the Army said it detected no amounts of chemical agents present above the acceptable amount for chemical workers.
DEQ Program Administrator Wayne Thomas said he has no evidence to support the EPA's claim. Thomas did note that the pages of supposedly "positive hits" presents questions, since the EPA didn't explain how it arrived at its data. Thomas said the DEQ is planning to talk to the EPA about the chart and how the agency arrived at its conclusions.
"Until we review this table, I stand by my conclusion," he said. Several agencies, including the DEQ and the Army, have asked the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review the depot's monitoring system.
Depot Commander Lt. Col. Tom Woloszyn said he was frustrated that the EPA hadn't contacted the depot about its investigation or its recommendations to the DEQ.
"I stand by what we found, that it wasn't chemical agent," he said. Additional tests affirmed this position, though the EPA was concerned whether "chemical agent degradation byproducts" may have sickened the workers.
These are components of chemical weapons after they've been exposed to air and have broken into smaller components. McCandlish claims these byproducts are toxic, though the DEQ and Woloszyn, who has a master's degree in chemistry, said they have no evidence to support this.
The EPA's letter asks the DEQ to do several things, including sampling soil at the depot for the degradated byproducts and to conduct soil and soil vapor sampling in K Block and at the construction site. Bruce Woods, a chemist with the EPA, postulated in a recent report that airborne agent may have gone down drains inside the igloos into the ground.
Depot spokeswoman Mary Binder said the Army recently finished plugging drains of the igloos in K Block, which go not into the ground but through a "U" shaped pipe to the outside. She added that soil tests were done on K Block, where the weapons are stored, in the late 1980s, and earlier in the next decade before construction started at the incineration site. The tests revealed nothing, she said.