Eighteen current and former workers at the Umatilla Chemical Depot's incinerator project are preparing to go to court, alleging the U.S. Army and its contractor covered up details of exposure to leaked chemical agent.

The workers were expected to announce their lawsuit this morning in Portland and later this afternoon in Hermiston.

The impending lawsuit stems from a Sept. 15 incident in which 34 workers at the incinerator site had trouble breathing and complained of other symptoms of exposure to an unknown chemical agent.

"We put together documents from the Army and Raytheon that we believe essentially show that Raytheon and the Army have essentially covered up that people were exposed to chemical weapons," said Jim McCandlish, an attorney representing the workers. Raytheon Demilitarization Co. is the contractor building the incinerator.

McCandlish plans to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Portland asking for an injunction to halt construction of the incinerator near Hermiston until certain safety protections are in place and to seek compensation and damages for his clients, some of whom can no longer work, he said.

McCandlish said the workers are suffering more because they weren't treated for chemical exposure.

'If the army would've owned up to what it was immediately, the workers could have gotten treatment that would have made their symptoms less intense and less permanent,' he said.

The Army has been storing chemical agents at the depot since 1962 and insists it has never had a release that threatened the health of employees, the public or the environment.

Mary Binder, an Army spokeswoman, said several agencies, including the Army, the state, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, concluded that chemical agents stored at the depot did not cause the workers' sickness.

What did cause the workers' illnesses has never been resolved. Guesses have varied from battery acid to pepper spray.

'No one who has looked at that data, who is trained to interpret that data, has concluded that the chemical agents stored at depot were involved in the Sept. 15 incident,' Binder said.

Army officials suspect McCandlish is looking at raw data, which could be misinterpreted without the necessary information about how the air monitoring machines are calibrated, Binder said.

Built during the Cold War, the Umatilla depot contains 3,717 tons of deadly nerve and mustard agents - about 11 percent of the nation's chemical-weapons stockpile. They are to be destroyed beginning in 2002.

Last September, McCandlish said the workers were taken to an emergency room suffering from breathing problems, nausea, confusion, vomiting, eye problems and throat irritation.

He said while some have returned to work, others cannot because they have been diagnosed with reactive airway disease; smells as faint as perfume can send them into something similar to a severe asthma attack.

McCandlish said the Army took too long to set up monitoring devices on Sept. 15 to see if any chemical agents were present and also placed the equipment in the wrong areas of the building.

But he said he has received documents through the Federal Information Act from OSHA that show the monitoring done that day discovered amounts of sarin and mustard gas.

'This is either a cover-up or an incredible bungling of the investigation,' McCandlish said.

Binder said McCandlish has not requested any documents from the Army, and they have not seen the documents he refers to. The Army believes he could have a worst-case scenario work sheet, which is an analysis required for workers entering concrete igloos where the weapons are stored but details a situation that never actually happened, she said.

As for what made the workers ill, Binder said investigators have not been able to identify the specific source.

'A challenge and frustration to this day is that we do not know what, for certain, caused those workers to become ill,' she said. 'But we also know and have known that the chemical agents were not involved.'

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