HERMISTON - Several people who testified at a public hearing Wednesday spoke against a change in the hazardous waste storage and treatment permit at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, even though blocking the change could delay the destruction of the chemical weapons.
About 30 local residents attended a hearing at the Good Shepherd Conference Center.
The modification sought by the U.S. Army would move a testing point for air pollutants in the incineration process. The state Department of Environmental Quality said the Army wouldn't be able to both meet the current requirements of the permit and finish the destruction of chemical warfare agents on time if the permit is denied.
The incineration process could take up to seven years if the permit is denied, about four times longer than if the change is approved, according to Sue Oliver, a spokesperson for DEQ.
That could add millions of dollars to the cost of incineration, the Army has said.
But citizens from Hermiston, Pendleton, Irrigon and Kennewick testified they were concerned about moving the testing point, fearing it would allow dirtier emissions to be released into the atmosphere.
In question is whether the testing point should be before a set of carbon filters or after. Although the filters were not originally intended to operate at all times, the reality of the furnace operations has meant that the filters are always on, Oliver said. Moving the compliance point for emissions, which are now before the filters, would put the testing at the end of the incineration process and allow the depot to destroy chemical weapons at a faster pace.
"What we need to ask is what was the original purpose of the carbon filters," said James Wilkinson, a Pendleton resident. He said that in a 1997 lawsuit filed by GASP, a local organization whose members oppose the incineration of chemical weapons, the army made it clear that the carbon filters were for extra protection.
"They said then that they would not 'take credit' for the emissions reduction of the filters," he said. "It's astonishing that they are now trying to take credit. I think that we are increasing the risk to the community by using the carbon filters."
Wilkinson's concerns were reiterated by others present, although a handful of residents spoke in favor of the permit, saying they wanted the weapons destroyed as soon as possible.
At the end of the public hearing, residents with conflicting viewpoints shouted at one another from across the room. Oliver, who moderated the event, calmed the room by warning - only half joking - that there could be "no fist fights in the parking lot."