The tone alert radios are being distributed. Emergency sirens have been in place for a few years. Shelter-in-place kits and informational calendars have been handed to most area residents.

However, the biggest complaint officials hear is that people don't know what to do if an accident happened at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

During a tour of the depot, Umatilla Mayor George Hash said he hears few complaints about the depot itself. Instead, many people say they are unsure of what to do during a chemical weapons emergency.

That's why Hermiston Mayor Frank Harkenrider brought about a dozen mayors, city managers and other officials to tour the depot on Tuesday. Harkenrider said he wanted the other mayors to see how the money is being spent to keep people safe. The project costs $604 million.

"They can tell their voters or constituents how safe this really is," Harkenrider said. He noted that many improvements have happened since September, when several workers claimed they were exposed to chemical agent fumes.

Now many fans circulate the air inside the buildings, which are still under construction. Staff pointed out many other improvements that stemmed from a community-wide false alarm in late December and a false alarm on the depot in April. Communication with workers and local communities has improved as a result, officials said.

"I say this plant is 99.9 percent safe - I don't know why anyone needs to worry," the mayor said.

The mayors and other representatives toured the depot grounds and the incineration plant, which is more than two-thirds complete. Incineration should begin in early 2002 and will last for about 40 months. After that, the complex will be dismantled.

The repeated emphasis on safety apparently sat well with the officials. None asked about a small leak at an incineration plant in Utah, even though some politicians in Alabama are decrying a lack of protocol by the Army. An incineration complex is also under construction there, and like the Umatilla depot, it's modeled on the Utah plant.

Troy Nichols, a former spokesman for U.S. Sen. Gordon Smith who is now working for U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, said neither man is worried about the Tooele County incident.

Mary Binder, spokeswoman for the depot, stressed that even when the plant becomes operational, complications will happen.

"What I stress is this is a plant," Binder told the officials. "There will be times when the plant will be shut down or when things get jammed."

Such predictions didn't dampen the enthusiasm of the officials. Mayor Bob Jepsen of Heppner, who had never toured the depot before, was excited enough that he not only brought his camera, but also his wife, Suzanne.

"She wanted to come and so did I," Jepsen said.

After zipping through various parts of the incineration complex, the officials debated the pros and cons of incinerating the 3,717 tons of chemical weapons at the depot.

"You know what's a shame is that the stuff had to be made in the first place," said Umatilla City Administrator Larry Clucas. "There's no upside to nerve agents."

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.