HERMISTON - Though some people fear chemical weapon incineration, the most dangerous part of destroying weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Depot may simply be getting them to the incinerator complex.
But if depot officials get their wish, the arrival of the first "Enhanced On-Site Container" may signal an end of such concerns.
The large, silver container will transport chemical weapons from storage igloos to the on-site incinerator complex, which should be completed this fall.
And even though no weapons will be moved until early 2002, the first of 40 such containers arrived early last month.
"The idea is to get our guys some time with these things" before operations start, said Lt. Col. Tom Woloszyn, the depot commander. Training should begin later this month.
No weapons will be moved until operations begin, Woloszyn said. Construction of the complex should be completed in November, but many other hurdles must be cleared before incineration can begin. Depot officials stressed that even though test burns could begin by next May, the materials used will be stored at the complex and won't require transportation.
Getting weapons from an igloo to the complex takes about 20 minutes, Woloszyn said. A forklift inside an igloo will transfer a pallet of weapons outside the igloo. There, a second forklift will transfer the wooden pallet to a large steel pallet.
"Using forklifts is not any new procedures for the workers here - that's how the munitions got here," said Mary Binder, spokeswoman for the depot.
Once loaded, a sturdier forklift will load the entire package inside the on-site container, which is atop a flat-bed trailer. The containers can hold a variety of weapons, such as two ton containers or six pallets of projectiles.
The schedule of how weapons will be destroyed is still being determined, Woloszyn said, but GB rockets will likely be first.
Workers will then close the substantial door, which weighs about 5,000 pounds. A system of hydraulics closes and seals the door, thus allowing the truck to begin its journey at less than 10 mph to the incineration complex.
At the complex, a crane will deposit the container inside the container handling building. An empty container will be loaded onto the flatbed and the truck will return to K Block, where the weapons are stored, for another load.
By storing up to 48 containers at a time, the incinerator can continue operations even if outside weather is too turbulent to allow for safe transportation of weapons, Binder said.
Before opening a container, workers will use sophisticated scanning devices to check the air in the container for any leaking agent. If any is detected, the container will be sent to another area for safe opening.
Once a container is deemed safe, a forklift will extract the pallets from inside and put them on a pneumatic conveyor belt for their trip to the incinerators.
Because the weapons - which have been stored for more than 30 years - are being moved, questions do arise. Allison Cornett, at the Umatilla Chemical Stockpile Outreach Office in Hermiston, said transporting the weapons to the incinerator is one of the "most frequently brought up concerns."
Depot officials say that by beginning training now, well more than a year before incineration will likely begin, and possibly by sending some employees to an incinerator in Utah for additional experience, the Army can minimize the possibility of accidents happening. Woloszyn said the containers have been used in Utah since 1996 without incident.
On-site containers have improved over time, and unlike automobiles, the cost decreased for the newer models. The containers cost $175,000 each - expensive, but cheaper than the $200,000 versions used at the incineration site in Utah.
"Not only is it easier to use, it's 25 grand cheaper," noted Chris Early, a protocol officer with Raytheon Demilitarization Co., the contractor building the incineration complex.
The Enhanced On-Site Container will be used to transport chemical weapons from storage igloos to the incinerator complex at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.
Though many people have concerns about transporting weapons that have sat for more than 30 years, the transport containers are built for safety.
The containers, which are 8.5 feet high and about 11 feet long, have three layers of protection. The outer layer is made of a half-inch of stainless steel. Beneath that shell is a polyurethane foam layer and 3-inch thick ceramic fiber blankets to protect against fire.
The innermost shell is constructed from stainless steel.
Containers can hold up to 7,000 pounds of weapons, but only one type of agent will be transported at a time.
The containers have been tested to withstand bumps, punctures and fires.
The containers are newer, lighter and cheaper than those used in Tooele County, Utah. Those containers need to be sealed in 17 spots, whereas the enhanced units that are beginning to arrive here have a hydraulic door.