Sens. Gordon Smith, R-Oregon, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., are correct to agree with a Kentucky senator's concern about the Army's Chemical Demilitarization Program but differ with him about the need to proceed with incineration. We must get these chemicals out of Oregon.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has been critical of the demilitarization program for some time. That's because an incinerator is being built in his home state. A recent hearing concerning the Army's progress on living up to an international treaty to destroy the weapons served to bring the issue much more notice than it has been getting.
During the hearing, internal Army memos were released that showed the scheduled destruction of chemical weapons is lagging. It also brought to light cost overruns in the program. All of these things should make us skeptical.
However, we remain convinced that the best thing Oregon can do is move forward and incinerate its 3,717 tons of chemical weapons kept at the Umatilla Chemical Depot. We wish a safer, alternative method was available to do the job, but it isn't. With each passing day, those weapons grow even more unstable.
Besides, no legitimate evidence exists that incineration is unsafe. Claims constantly are made to that effect, but nothing is proven. If we thought unnecessary risks were being taken, we would agree that incineration efforts should be halted. That's not been the case so far.
The Umatilla incinerator is 99 percent complete. Test burns are scheduled for October, although that could change. We're too far along in the process to put everything on hold. Let's move ahead.
It's easy to scare people about chemical weapons. They are mysterious to most folks and nerve agent obviously doesn't exactly have a good image. But the best science available still says incineration is the safest way to destroy these weapons. And our nation's top scientists say that there is more danger leaving the weapons sitting in igloos than in incineration. That's the basis of our support for getting rid of these weapons.
The likelihood of an accident of any kind is slim. But an accident is guaranteed if we just leave them sitting indefinitely, all the while deteriorating.
The Army also has taken a lot of deserved heat for being so far behind on this process. An international treaty requires all chemical weapons to be destroyed by 2007, although it appears many more years will be required. However, at least the United States is making progress. Russia, for example, is not even close to meeting the treaty's requirements.
Oregon's senators have the right idea to hold the Army accountable for delays, but they also have the sense to press forward on incineration.