What do you think of when you hear the words chemical weapons? Iraq? Russia? Al Queda?
Well, one of the largest stockpiles of chemical weapons created in the 20th century was produced in the United States.
Tons of the deadly agents – never used - were produced during the Cold War in the 1950s and 1960s in a top-secret project and now sit idle, more danger to the community than they ever were to the enemy. For the last 30 years, the Army has been trying to figure out how to get rid of them.
When 60 Minutes first visited one stockpile in Hermiston, Ore., in 1998, people living around the site were worried the chemical weapons were leaking. Since Sept. 11, says Steve Kroft in this "Classic" report, they worry that terrorists might target these stockpiles or somehow get hold of the deadly weapons.
In 1998, Lt. Col. Martin Jacoby, depot commander, gave Kroft a tour of the site, where for as far as the eye can see, there are a thousand concrete bunkers covered with earth. Beneath the mounds are hundreds and hundreds of chemical weapons, loaded with nerve gas and blister agent, just a few miles from 25,000 people who live and work in the area.
In one bunker was 2,000 M-55 rockets, obsolete but still loaded with propellant and GB nerve gas, also known as Sarin. A single drop will kill you.
A 30–year-old Army test shows that in the event of a serious fire in the bunker, exploding rockets and clouds of nerve gas could kill 10,000 to 25,000 people downwind of the site.
So to protect them, Congress created something called the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, or CSEPP.
In 1998, Mayor Frank Harkenrider called the CSEPP program a joke and challenged anyone to find the $25 million the government claims it spent on preparedness in his city.
The only thing the Hermiston Fire and Emergency Center, which would be the first agency notified in the event of an accident at the depot, had ever received from CSEPP was a box with coveralls, a traffic indicator, some flashlights and batteries down there. In an emergency, said Chief Jim Stearns, the best he could do was move equipment and manpower out of harm's way.
Things weren't much better at the largest hospital in the area, a few miles from the chemical weapons depot and directly in the path of the prevailing winds. Ken Franz, who runs the emergency room, said that in a chemical release, he would have to shut the hospital to protect the people already inside and would be reluctant to open the doors.
After that 60 Minutes report aired, the government came up with another $25 million to provide the community with the equipment and training that had been promised. Since Sept. 11, the Army has responded with heightened security. And now, a process has begun to burn all those weapons.
The largest construction project in the state with a price tag of $2.5 billion, a massive incinerator will burn the weapons. It has taken more than four years to build and is still a year away from the start of the burning. The army estimates it will take nearly six years to destroy all the depot's weapons.
When that is done, even the massive building will be destroyed, crushed into pieces no bigger than a dime.
The incinerator is not the only change.
Chief Jim Stearns says the Hermiston Fire and Emergency Service has gotten funding for personal protective gear, monitoring equipment and training.
At the hospital, there is new equipment and training, including a mass decontamination unit for use in the event of an accident. It hasn't seen use, even though there has been one accident.
Without warning, at 11:05 a.m. on September 15, 1999, a toxic gas felled more than 30 of the workers inside the building that will one day incinerate the weapons.
John Tucker, a supervisor, was sure chemical agent had escaped from the bunkers.
"It was to me, right then and there--well, they've gone and done it," he says. "They've released something. It was really foreign, it was foreign enough for me to believe at that moment it was chemical agent."
If it was chemical agent, the depot should have called in an alarm, activating the plans and equipment from CSEPP designed to protect civilians in the area. But no call from the Army was ever made. Less than 45 minutes after the incident, an ambulance crew was told by authorities at the construction site that it was not Sarin or mustard gas or any chemical agent from the bunkers.
"They had no way of knowing that," Tucker said. "They could not possibly have known that. They didn't test for chemical agent on the job site for over three hours.
To this day, the Army maintains it was not chemical agent and that the response was appropriate. And yet, it says it doesn't know what it was that affected the workers.
The commander of the depot at the time, Lt. Col. Tom Wallisen, tells Kroft operations at bunkers stopped before the workers became sick. But, reports Kroft, the Army's own logs show the work was completed at 10:38 at the igloo numbered 1897 which contains GB--Sarin chemical weapons. It is just a few hundred feet from the workers who were made ill at 11:05.
Wallisen says the Army has sophisticated monitoring devices that did not detect a leak that day. Kroft says information from the U.S. Army, show there were traces of Sarin or mustard gas in the air that day.
Another reason the army has claimed it couldn't have been chemical agent was the wind direction. If the wind was blowing out, then it was not agent affecting the workers and there was no need to alert the community. But for the first time since the accident, the Army admits what its own logs show: that the wind was blowing toward the construction site where the workers were at the time of the accident.
There has not been another serious incident at the depot, but after Sept. 11, security was heightened on the ground and in the sky over the bunkers. That air space, which used to be open to commercial aircraft, was closed. In addition, armed fighter jets were sent to the area and remain on high alert.
Today, the only thing the residents who live next door to the depot can do is look out at all those bunkers filled with thousands of tons of nerve gas and keep their fingers crossed, hoping there are no more accidents for six years, when the bunkers will finally be emptied and the chemical weapons destroyed.
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