HERMISTON - Hermiston Mayor Frank Harkenrider is using his clout to seek funding for a bridge over the Umatilla River.

The proposed bridge, which would extend Punkin Center Road, would add an additional evacuation route from the Umatilla Chemical Depot in the unlikely event of a chemical emergency.

"We believe that the only two existing evacuation routes from the depot are flawed," Harkenrider wrote this week in a letter to the regional director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, David de Courcy.

"The southern route would likely be impassable for those trying to evacuate and for emergency vehicles trying to reach the depot," he wrote, "and the northern route is in the path of prevailing winds that would carry gas from the depot.

"We believe that the proposed bridge project will address these safety concerns by providing a strategically located connection between chemical weapons disposal activities and emergency services capabilities in Hermiston."

Mary Binder, a spokesperson for the depot, said the Army is gathering information on the mayor's proposal. Binder didn't say if the existing evacuation routes were adequate, but added that the routes used would depend on the direction and severity of a chemical plume.

"To the best of my knowledge, no one at the depot was contacted when the (city's) study was conducted," Binder said this morning.

Harkenrider and other City Council members sought funding for the bridge project from the U.S. Department of Transportation in March 1999.

An engineering firm determined that the bridge would "supplement existing emergency evacuation routes and result in significant time savings between the Umatilla Army Depot and Good Shepherd Community Hospital," the letter says.

Harkenrider said Wednesday that the bridge could offer a direct route to the incinerator site, potentially cutting about 15 minutes off a trip to the hospital.

"I hope (the letter) does some good because we really need that Punkin Center bridge, there's no doubt about it," he said. "A few minutes could save a life, so it's a safety concern."

Hermiston has sought funds to pay the hefty $7 million price tag for the bridge for about a year. It is a separate issue from the $50 million Umatilla and Morrow counties are seeking from the federal government for impact aid due to the incinerator construction and operation.

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