HERMISTON - After nearly a decade of preparation, on Sept. 8, 2004, workers at the Umatilla Chemical Depot began destroying more than 7.4 million pounds of chemical agent stored in weapons by the U.S. Army since the early 1960s.
That day, after a four-hour glitch delayed the process, the first M55 rocket filled with sarin nerve agent was placed on a conveyor belt at the weapons disposal facility, drained of its deadly liquid, chopped into pieces and burned in a high temperature furnace.
Since then, workers have destroyed more than 2,300 M55 rockets, and 20,845 pounds of the liquid sarin.
The Umatilla Depot is the fifth Army site to begin destroying its stockpile of chemical weapons. It has 12 percent of the country's supply.
It will take up to two years to destroy the more than 90,000 M55 rockets stored on site.
Afterward, the disposal facility will be adjusted to begin processing munitions filled with VX nerve agent. The depot's supply of mustard blister agent, which is about two-thirds of the total chemical agent on the depot, will be processed last.
The total destruction of the stockpile is expected to be completed in 2012.
The process has not been trouble-free in the first four months of operations. Notably, three instances of human error have temporarily halted the destruction process.
The first was when an emergency stop button was accidentally pressed the first day a rocket was processed. For four hours, the button kept a gate from sliding open and allowing rocket pieces to drop into the furnace.
The other two incidents, one occurring about a week after weapons destruction began and the other in early December, both involved workers going through wrong doors and entering rooms potentially contaminated with chemical agent.
All four workers tested negative for exposure and are OK.
The Washington Demilitarization Company, the contractor operating the disposal facility for the Army, recently retrained its entire work force in response to the second incident.
In October and November, several security guards also reported strange odors and mild reactions to them while on depot grounds. Investigators from the Army's headquarters in Maryland flew in to help identify the cause.
So far, no official explanation has been released, but depot officials said they are confident chemical agent was not involved.