HERMISTON - An influential senator from Kentucky has called for a restructuring of the program that is constructing the Umatilla Chemical Depot's incinerator plant, which should one day rid Oregon of 3,717 tons of chemical weapons.
In a Tuesday letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky, calls for a restructuring of the Chemical Demilitarization Program. He is a member of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, which controls funding for the program.
Citing testimony from an April 25 hearing, McConnell writes that a revamping of the Army's Chemical Demilitarization Program is needed to restore confidence in the program. He said he would support changes brought about by the Bush administration.
During a three-hour hearing two weeks ago, anti-incineration advocates presented internal Army memos that show that the destruction of the nation's chemical weapons may extend for years beyond a 2007 deadline set by an international treaty.
"While the terrific cost and schedule overruns which have resulted are troubling, it is the potential safety implications of this haphazard management which is most disturbing," McConnell wrote. "The Army has eroded any sense of trust it may have hoped to foster by providing misleading testimony and ignoring the concerns raised by citizens who are directly impacted by this program."
McConnell, R-Ky., has been a longtime advocate of alternative technologies for destroying at least some of the nation's 30,000 tons of chemical weapons. Kentucky is home to the Blue Grass Chemical Activity, which stores 523 tons of chemical weapons and borders on a middle school.
A separate program currently is testing methods other than incineration for ridding some parts of the nation of chemical weapons.
Aides for both of Oregon's senators said McConnell's criticism is valid, but they wouldn't support anything that would further delay the incineration schedule in Oregon.
Joe Sheffo, from Sen. Gordon Smith's office, said they support McConnell's calls for increased accountability in a program that has seen cost estimates increase from $1.7 billion to destroy the nation's stockpile in 1985 to $14.1 billion.
"We definitely share Senator McConnell's frustration in the process of trying to get rid of these chemical weapons," Sheffo said.
Neither senator believed now is the time to start over in Oregon, however.
"We want to be cautious about the delays that would put Oregonians in danger for a longer period of time while Washington hashes out how to rework the system," said Carol Guthrie, Sen. Ron Wyden's press secretary.
The Umatilla Chemical Depot's incinerator complex is 99 percent complete, and the latest schedule calls for test burns to begin in October. However, a revised schedule is in the works.