As Greg Gallier served sweaty glasses of frothy beer to the half dozen customers sitting on stools at his bar, he singled out one of them - "Hey, Arlen, do you use your air filter?"
"No," Arlen Jones quickly said, his thin body slightly slumped, cigarette casually held between his fingers. "I think I've had it on maybe once. Maybe I should."
"What about you?" Gallier said, nodding at another of his customers, a younger man in a blue and white plaid shirt sitting to Arlen's left. "Do you have a warm, fuzzy feeling because you have the filter?"
"It keeps the house clean," Howard Sheets replied. "I don't know that it makes any of us safer."
As Gallier went down the line, the Irrigon residents continued to express similar feelings about the air filters, the subject of a public hearing planned for Wednesday before the Umatilla County Board of Commissioners.
The filters are meant to provide added protection to residents living near the Umatilla Chemical Depot, which stores about 12 percent of the country's chemical arsenal. The U.S. Army intends to start incinerating the weapons this month. Irrigon, a town in Morrow County, is closest to the depot and to the incinerator. So far more than 800 of the filters have been distributed in town.
Umatilla, however, a town just miles down the road and across the county line, hasn't received any - and that's a sore point with its City Council. In late June, it asked the Umatilla County commissioners to reconsider its decision against funding the distribution of the filters. In making their decision, the commissioners said they were not convinced the filters offer enough value to justify their $500,000 price tag. The hearing Wednesday will allow Umatilla residents to appeal that decision.
"We're going to go down to protest it because we feel we need that additional layer of protection," said George Hash, Umatilla's mayor. "The money is there. Morrow County has them. I can see no reason at all why we should not have this added element of safety."
The filters are to be used primarily to enhance sheltering-in-place, the procedure residents closest to the depot would follow in the event of an accident involving the chemical weapons. The portable machines will catch any nerve or blister agent that makes it through the plastic and duct tape residents would put in place, according to Randall Dodd, president of Clean Air Systems and a consultant who helped design the filters.
The filters also can be used on a daily basis for normal air filtering of dust and cat hair and such, said Casey Beard, director of Morrow County's Emergency Management.
They cost about $300 each, Beard said, and are being paid for and distributed by the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP), a federally funded program meant to ensure the protection of communities living near the depot.
Umatilla County's commissioners said the filters would do little to mitigate the risk, calculated at a 1 in 270,000 chance of a fatality in Umatilla from a depot accident, roughly equivalent to the chances of someone being struck by lightening.
While Umatilla's politicians feel slighted by the county's refusal to provide the filters, residents in Irrigon and Umatilla said the filters aren't such a big deal. They said they'd rather their tax dollars were spent elsewhere.
Mirroring the sentiments said at Greg's Tavern in Irrigon, Sam Whitlock, a nine-year resident of Umatilla, explained, "I think most of the people who will want them won't want them for the depot. They're going to get them because they're free and another thing for them to have."
"It's just another fleecing of America," said James Johannbroer, a Umatilla resident for 15 years who was sharing company with Whitlock at a bar in Umatilla.
But what about that warm, fuzzy safe feeling the filters could provide?
"I don't know if it's going to do any good," said Richard Ingalls, an Irrigon resident living near Southeast Seventh Street. He was watering his lawn Tuesday afternoon and said he had a filter inside his home, but it was sitting unplugged in his dining room, collecting dust.
"It works. But if an emergency comes up, I'm going to jump in the car and go that way," he said, pointing east.
Back at Greg's Tavern in Irrigon, Jennifer Smith, the next in line for the questioning by bartender Gallier, said she doesn't worry about an accident at the depot. But the filter is nice, she said.
"My allergies aren't as bad," she quipped.
Summing up his findings, the bartender Gallier offered this opinion to Umatilla County residents: "We like our filters, but for the wrong reason."