Oregon - Employees sue to shut down Umatilla Chemical Depot; allege nerve gas leaks

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Measuring devices "miscalibrated" in 1999?....

Chemical Weapon Workers Allege Nerve Gas Leaks At Oregon Facility

By Todd Murphy


8-2-00 PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Eighteen former employees at a chemical weapons depot in Oregon are suing the U.S. Army and a facility contractor, Raytheon Co., alleging they were harmed by leaks of deadly nerve gas while working at the site. The lawsuit asks that the Umatilla Chemical Depot in northeast Oregon be shut down until the Army and Raytheon take steps to ensure worker safety at the facility, which was built to store and dispose of thousands of tons of chemical weapons including sarin, a nerve gas, and mustard gas. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Portland on Monday, refers to government test results that lawyers say show the presence of sarin and mustard gas in an area where 34 depot workers were overcome by an unknown vapor last Sept. 15. Responding to the lawsuit, Army officials said on Tuesday that the gases detected in the tests were probably pesticides or other harmless chemicals. ``Our viewpoint is that they have misinterpreted the data,'' said Jim Hackett, an Army spokesman at the depot. The Army has suggested the workers could have been overcome by epoxy fumes, pepper spray brought onto the grounds, or acid from large batteries stored nearby. The employees' lawyers, who obtained the test data through the Freedom of Information Act, say they suspect the measuring devices were miscalibrated and that actual levels were above the maximum allowed for civilians. The Umatilla Chemical Depot was one of several depots in the United States and on a Pacific atoll where the U.S. military stores its 30,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons. Congress has ordered the Army to destroy the poisons by 2007. Incinerators are being built at each depot to burn the chemicals, some of which are already leaking in small amounts through corroded and rusty shell casings. The gases are stored in rockets and artillery shells that are in some cases more than 60 years old. The employees were working on a building that will house the incinerator at Umatilla. The furnace, a few hundred yards (meters) from where the chemicals are stored, is scheduled to be completed next year, and incineration to start in 2002, Hackett said. About 12 percent of the U.S. chemical weapons stockpile is stored at Umatilla, stashed in several dozen earthen igloos. The Army has said leaks of individual shells are sometimes discovered inside the igloos but measurable levels of gases have never been detected outside the area of the igloos. The former employees said the monitoring results and their symptoms prove otherwise. Some of those who filed the lawsuit said what they experienced -- the sudden chest tightness, difficulty in breathing and searing pain through the entire respiratory system -- was unlike anything they had encountered on any ordinary construction site. ``I remember it hitting so hard it was like being punched in the chest,'' said David Bosley, a former millwright who has been diagnosed with reactive airway disease and says he has not been able to work since the incident.

-- Lee Maloney (leemaloney@hotmail.com), August 03, 2000

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