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A Story of Chemical Weapons and Environmental Cleanup in Umatilla County


​At one point in the 60s, the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Boardman housed 12 percent of the nation’s chemical warfare agents. The depot held a massive stockpile of nerve and mustard gas (more than 3,717 tons) and all kinds of chemical agents for use in rockets, bombs, tanks and other projectiles.
 
Fast forward to 1985. Congress directs the Army to destroy the nation’s entire chemical agent stockpile, including munitions stored in Umatilla. In 1997, the Army builds the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility and installs four incinerators to destroy all chemical agents at the depot.
  
During this time, EPA found a number of separate problems at the site, not related to the chemical weapons stockpile. This included groundwater contamination in several of the depot’s lagoons, which served as washout areas to clean conventional munitions. EPA placed the site on its National Priorities List, a database that identifies and prioritizes contamination and hazardous waste site across the country. EPA also identified seven other areas in need of environmental cleanup. DEQ would become involved in a multi-year effort to address each of these areas.           
 
In 2004, the Army began destroying chemical agents, and DEQ played a critical part in that project, both in construction and operation of the facility. The agency established the Chemical Demilitarization Program, which provided environmental and human health oversight during disposal. The main focus was ensuring that all chemicals and other hazardous waste were destroyed safely in a manner protective of people and the environment. By 2011, the army had destroyed almost 4,000 tons of chemical agents at the depot, and nearly a quarter million munitions.
With 100 percent of the chemical weapons destroyed, the project took on a new dimension, and a new twist. The facility responsible for destroying the munitions had to itself be demolished.

That project – dismantling the incinerator – began this past summer. DEQ is involved in that effort, too, ensuring that hazardous waste is stored and transported safely.  Dismantling of the incinerator facility is on pace to conclude early next year. Of the eight sites identified for separate environmental cleanup, DEQ has helped complete six of those projects. And DEQ is working with partners on the remaining two, including groundwater contamination in the washout lagoon. 

Destroying chemical agents and closing the depot took decades, not months or years. Of course, this effort was further complicated with groundwater contamination and hazardous waste residue, which required separate and ongoing attention. The depot would become a massive environmental cleanup – among the largest in Oregon’s history – and DEQ played a critical role through each phase in the process.
 
Today, because of that effort, the land will take on new and beneficial uses. Local jurisdictions are already planning for future uses at the site, which could include industrial or transportation-related businesses. There is also talk of a wildlife refuge on a portion of the property. Maybe the site will go full circle, from chemical storage to conservation habitat. Perhaps one of the several industries now interested in the property will locate there, creating jobs and revenue.

Whatever the future holds, Oregonians everywhere can be proud of this effort, and of the role DEQ continues to play in transforming the Umatilla Chemical Depot.