A Creepy Legacy

If you cross into Oregon from the state of Washington, near where the mighty Columbia River bends toward the sea, you might stumble upon the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Even if you don’t know this site’s purpose, it will give you chills. Until very recently, this was a scary, scary place.

What you’ll see is about 1000 concrete bunkers, row upon row, each one identical to the last, stretching out for 20 square miles. It’s quite likely that you’ll not see a human being in the entire area. It is a ghost town. Even tumbleweeds would fear to tread here. It gives “as far as the eye can see” a whole new meaning.

When I came upon this place, the hair on the back of my neck stood straight up. I didn’t want to linger here. It was hard to believe that in a land of such beauty, such an ominous place needed to exist.

The Umatilla Chemical Depot was opened by the US Army in 1941, to prepare for World War II. It was originally intended as a storage facility, for anything from ammunition to potable water to can openers to blankets and toilet paper. It wasn’t until 1962 that chemical weapons began to be stored there. Umatilla was where 12% of the nation’s stockpile of these weapons was located.

We all know that chemical weapons are the stuff of dictators and evildoers. We harshly condemn countries who use such weapons on civilians. So it’s hard for me to digest the concept that it took 20 square miles to store just 12% of my own country’s supply. This depot housed 1016 tons of sarin in liquid form, 364 tons of liquid VX nerve gas, and 2634 tons of mustard agent.

That’s a lot of “I wanna kill you”, right there. And we try to look like we’re the good guys. I didn’t know a thing about this until a few weeks ago, and I have to say I’m a little freaked out by the mere evidence of this place’s existence. It also makes me wonder where the other 88% of this stuff has been stored.

Rest assured, the people in the surrounding counties were painfully aware of this depot. Elementary school students were subjected to drills in case some poison gas escaped. Every school gym in the area had equipment that would create greater air pressure than was found outside. The children would be herded into these gyms, duct tape would be placed over the cracks in the doors, and this equipment would be turned on. How horrific. And this practice continued on every group of students from 1962 to 2011. I bet that changes your worldview.

Further, every home in the area had an emergency radio receiver provided by the federal government, so they could be immediately warned of any gas escaped. It must have been strange, living with something like that, knowing that it might spring to life at any moment, predicting your doom. People stored plastic and duct tape to seal off one room as a safety precaution. That seems like flimsy protection against an agent like sarin, which is fatal if this colorless, odorless gas is inhaled or absorbed through the skin, unless the antidote is injected in you within 60 seconds.

But the good news is that America is complying with the Chemical Weapons Conference pact of 1997, which means we had to get rid of these toxic substances by April 2012. Umatilla was one of the last sites in the country to meet this requirement. They made it just under the wire. All chemical weapons have been destroyed there as of October 25, 2011.

But getting rid of the stuff wasn’t easy. First, the government had to build incinerators that could get up to 2,700 degrees, because anything less than that would not effectively destroy the chemicals. Building those incinerators cost 2.7 billion dollars.

They started burning in September, 2004. They went for the most dangerous chemicals first. They burned the sarin until October, 2007. Once they were done with that, they switched to the VX, and burned that until June of 2009. Next came the mustard gas. Once they completed that process, they began burning the incinerator complex itself, and they expected that process to last until 2014.

And now, what to do with this 20 square miles of empty bunkers, and all the jobs that burned along with the incinerators? There’s the conundrum. There are several competing groups with competing agendas. Some want a nature preserve, others want industry. The Umatilla Tribe wants its land back so that they can rehabilitate it. A lot of people in the area want a Walmart. The only definite decision is that part of the property will be converted into a National Guard training center.

Now, mostly what you’ll see if your drive past the Umatilla Chemical Depot are the ghosts of this nation’s darker past.

Sources for this story:

A New Life Awaits For The Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot

Umatilla chemical weapons: end of a nightmare

Wikipedia: Umatilla Chemical Depot

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