HERMISTON - The emergency response system is as good as it's going to get, so get on with destruction of the stockpile of chemical weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

That's what the majority of the northeastern Oregon residents at a public hearing Thursday night told officials from the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program Governing Board and the Citizens Advisory Committee.

"Get the hell on with the program and light the match," said Chuck Norris, resident of Hermiston and commander of the Depot from 1968 to 1971. "The storage risk will exist until the stock destruction is complete."

The stockpile of chemical warfare agents have been stored at the Depot since 1962. Test burns are still on track to start at the end of May, said Site Project Manager Don Barclay. Burning of actual agents is scheduled for February 2003.

The public's comments on the status of CSEPP will be forwarded to an executive review panel for consideration as it develops a recommendation for the governor.

The CSEPP Executive Review Panel was created by Gov. John Kitzhaber to evaluate community emergency readiness and recommend whether the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility is ready for operation.

The Hazardous Waste Storage and Treatment Permit for the Umatilla facility requires the governor to issue a decision that an adequate emergency response program is in place and fully operational before operations can begin.

In the meantime, Norris pointed out, three former commanders of the Depot, including himself, have retired downwind from the Depot.

He said they should know better than anyone else the risks involved with the Depot, and if they feel safe enough to stay in the area, that should mean something.

Jerry Reed, a combat veteran living in Hermiston, said there is no 100 percent guarantee for safety until the stockpile is eliminated.

"Our greatest danger is doing nothing or continuing to postpone what we need to do," Reed said.

Lifetime Hermiston resident Bill Myers said it's really up to citizens to take care of themselves in an emergency.

"You guys can help me, but I'm the one responsible for myself," Myers told the committees. "I'm not going to leave town, I'm not worried about it," he said.

There are several residents who are worried about it, however.

"Incineration is on a pedestal but they've never really revealed all the details," said J.R. Wilkinson of Hermiston. "I'm not sure incineration is the way to go, I'm in that gray zone."

Speaking from a well-researched position, Wilkinson made several recommendations to officials dealing with emergency preparedness and the incineration process.

First, he recommended full disclosure of information so the public can make informed opinions about their safety as well as a door-to-door campaign to gather input from people living in the "A-Zone," where people would be most likely impacted.

He also suggested a better push to get information out to the Hispanic farm workers.

Wilkinson's last recommendation said a plan for "response, reentry, recovery and restoration" needs to be in place.

"I don't believe an adequate emergency response system is in place," Wilkinson concluded.

Hermiston's Karyn Jones, representing the Oregon Wildlife Federation and anti-incineration group GASP, said she is concerned about the "notion that adequacy" over maximum safety is good enough for Oregon. She also agreed with Wilkinson that a plan of reentry needs to be settled on.

Susan Jones of Hermiston said her main concern is the children. A teacher for 28 years, she said the school she works in does not have medical supplies or showers in place in case of a chemical emergency. She also said that the students are required to go outside and move into a different building, exposing them to the elements.

Residents who didn't make the meeting can still submit written comments to the Hermiston Department of Environmental Quality Office through April 30.

Copies of documents including executive reports, evaluations and other technical information are available at the Oregon DEQ office in Hermiston, the Oregon Emergency Management office in Pendleton or the Hermiston Public Library.

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