Gov. John Kitzhaber told representatives from various agencies, communities and counties that measures to prepare the area for the destruction of chemical weapons must not fall behind construction of the incineration plant.

Looking across the room, Kitzhaber told the group that nothing was more important in preparing for a chemical weapons accident at the Umatilla Chemical Depot than ensuring safety.

"My No. 1 priority ... is the safety of the citizens who live in this area," Kitzhaber told members of an advisory group in Pendleton. "On the other hand, we have some very dangerous chemicals sitting here ... and I think we've come to the conclusion that the risk of storage is worse than the risk of incineration.

"I think it's unacceptable to let a completed incinerator sit there unused," he said.

The newly formed group, called the Executive Review Panel, is a group of 19 agency representatives who will spend the next several months determining if the communities surrounding the Umatilla depot are prepared for an accident there. The governor won't let incineration begin until he is satisfied with area preparations.

The governor told the panel that he expects a preliminary report by the end of the year and a recommendation by June. If all schedules hold, the U.S. Army plans to begin trial burns by October 2001 and should begin full-scale incineration in 2002.

Before zipping off to his next appointment, Kitzhaber commended the group for the work they've done.

Because the governor was only able to visit with the group for about 40 minutes, some in attendance expressed uncertainty about the use of Kitzhaber's appearance. But others were quite pleased by the cameo.

"I think it was a good thing for the governor to come out here," said Tom Johnson, director of the Oregon Health Division. Johnson said Kitzhaber has helped the panel members get past their differences and make a difference in the community.

While the group spent much of the three-hour meeting establishing a mission statement, some in the audience expressed displeasure with the panel's members. Karyn Jones, with the anti-incineration group, GASP, said the panel needs a core of experts, not mayors and county commissioners.

"Leaving the decision to politicians is not only a shame, it's dangerous," Jones said.

Jones added that GASP and others may urge the governor to reject the panel's recommendations if the panel's make-up isn't shifted.

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