HERMISTON - The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will apparently release a clarification on its recent call for investigations on what it believes are tiny releases of chemical agents at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.
During Thursday's meeting of the Oregon Chemical Demilitarization Citizens Advisory Committee, Wayne Thomas of the state Department of Environmental Quality said that the federal agency would soon issue some sort of follow-up on a Feb. 7 letter that asks for more information about potential readings of chemical agents between May and July of 2000 at the depot. Thomas, the program manager, talked with the EPA on Thursday afternoon.
Whether this will be a retraction or simply a clarification, and its time frame, is unknown. The EPA didn't return a phone call this morning.
In the letter, the EPA noted 59 times that an air monitoring station on the depot had "positive hits," mostly of sarin. The EPA asked for more study on the incidents, even though the amounts were at least 21 times less than the amount of sarin the Surgeon General said civilians could be exposed to for a lifetime with no effects.
Thomas said his agency did not "flat-out concur" with the EPA's conclusions that these were truly readings of chemical agent, adding that these numbers were well below the "appropriate and adequate protection" levels set aside by the government.
"We did not get a chance to review (the EPA's data) before it was released," he said.
The EPA's letter was spurred by a 1999 incident when 34 construction workers on the depot were sickened by what they believed was chemical agent. Data at the time and several studies since - including one by the EPA - said the incident likely wasn't from mustard, sarin or VX, the three agents at the depot.
However, the EPA was concerned about the low-level readings at a depot monitoring network noted by the lawyer representing 18 of the workers. These "chemical agent degradation by-products," the components chemical agents break down into after they are exposed to air, could be toxic, said lawyer James McCandlish.
"Some degradation is very toxic, some degradation is not degradation at all," he said. "It depends on what the compound is."
The state said it has no evidence to support the toxicity of the compounds. McCandlish noted Thursday that this won't be known until some agency investigates readings of phosphorus and sulfur from September 1999 at the construction site. He said these readings must be checked by a gas chromatograph and could be evidence that chemical agent migrated across the depot.
Officials at the meeting said that when dealing with such minute traces of chemicals, nerve agents and some herbicides can easily be mistaken. They also break down into similar compounds, they added. Nerve agents and some chemicals farmers use are organo-phosphates, which are chemically similar.
Advisory Commission President Bob Flournoy said many people don't understand the complexities of such investigations, nor the amount of chemicals already in the atmosphere that can make quick conclusions foolhardy.
"You can find traces of nerve agents ... in the atmosphere 400 miles from here because its in the atmosphere, but so many people don't understand what is out there," he said.
Thomas said the DEQ will work with the EPA to review the conclusions of a federal scientist. In addition to a January request for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to review the depot's monitoring systems, the DEQ will also review the depot's data and later hold public meetings on its findings.
"We are going to spend however long it takes to go through it line by line," he said. "If we get data that shows chemical agent, we will act swift, I assure you."
The DEQ will likely gain additional oversight of chemical operations at the depot in March, but Depot Commander Lt. Col. Tom Woloszyn said people shouldn't worry about the Army's honesty.
"We are committed to safety and I want people to know that (even) if the Department (of Environmental Quality) wasn't there, we would be safe," he said.