Possible Coverup at Umatilla Chemical Depot

Author Subject: Possible Coverup at Umatilla Chemical Depot
Webamster Posted At 12:02:44 03/20/2001
If you set out to write a treatise on "How to Create a Conspiracy Theory," you'd have trouble finding a better example than the U.S. Army has provided in Northeastern Oregon.

Its handling of the pandemonium that broke out at the Umatilla Chemical Depot on Sept. 15, 1999, would make a chilling script for an "X-Files" episode.

All the ingredients were there that day: (1) Something terrible happened, (2) the stakes were enormous and (3) the official response was less than straightforward. Cries of "cover-up" inevitably rose in the desert breeze, and the wind itself became part of the story.

No one, not even the Army, disputes that something terrible happened that morning at the "MDB." That's what the Army calls its Munitions Demilitarization Building, the hulking incinerator under construction at the edge of a square-mile range of bunkers storing chemical weapons. Invariably described as "the size of a football field" but looking more like the bleak set of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie, the MDB will soon begin destroying that stockpile of deadly agents.

And no one disputes that nearly three dozen construction workers came staggering out of the MDB that morning, many of them collapsing in agony -- crying, vomiting, choking, gasping for air, fighting to control their bowels, some begging for oxygen or an ambulance. Many of these men and women can hardly wait to get into a courtroom to tell their stories, which the public has yet to hear.

A few minutes past 11 that morning, 48-year-old steamfitter Brian Zasso was installing equipment inside the massive structure when he heard a commotion erupt among nearby construction workers. Then the tingling struck -- on his face and hands. An instant later, he thought his lungs were on fire. In the burgeoning chaos around him, workers were screaming, running for the exits and dragging others who had fallen. "I thought I was going to die," he says.

Dave Bosley, a 38-year-old millwright, felt like he'd been slammed in the face and chest with a plank. "I will die if I don't get out," he thought. He made it, collapsing outside in the gravel -- "throwing up, bawling, gasping uncontrollably," his lungs seemingly melting.

Jim Shaffer, a 55-year-old pipefitter, first sensed a metallic taste. Then something invisible hit him, dropping him to his knees in pain, coughing convulsively -- "so violently I thought my rectum was going to come out my mouth."

John Tucker, a 51-year-old welding inspector, felt something hit him like a baseball bat, but he knew better. "I've worked 33 years in nuclear plants and petrochemical refineries, and I know what industrial fumes are," he says. "This was no such accident. This was nerve gas."

Utterly not true, insists the Army. "We might have been plodding and slow in getting information out, but there was no intent to be misleading," says Lt. Col. Tom Woloszyn, the depot commander. "And there was no evidence at all of a spill of chemical agent."

The four men -- even now a bit raspy and short of breath -- are clearly still sick a year and a half after their nightmarish experience. They are among 18 plaintiffs -- soon to be 60 -- in a lawsuit seeking damages and a stop to construction of the MDB. They allege that deadly warfare agents leaked from nearby bunkers and nearly killed them, ravaging their respiratory and central nervous systems.

Something terrible, indeed, and with enormous stakes. The U.S. government intends to spend $1.2 billion building the incinerator and burning 6.6 million pounds of deadly GB (sarin), VX and mustard agents, some of it stored at Umatilla in deteriorating and leaking containers. The Army is under tremendous pressure to complete the incinerator by this fall. A delay would be a serious blow; a shutdown would be a calamity. Besides posing an increasingly grave danger to the public, the Umatilla chemical stockpile is the subject of an international treaty; the United States has promised to get rid of the hideous weapons.

Here is where the script evolves into what the injured workers see as a government conspiracy and what the Army insists is paranoia, fueled by unwarranted (but mostly unwanted) media attention.

"Why would a good newspaper like yours even be interested in this?" says Mary Binder, the Army's spokeswoman at the Umatilla Chemical Depot.

If the full truth about Sept. 15, 1999, is ever clearly established, it's not likely to happen before the case goes to trial, months from now, in U.S. District Court in Portland. In the meantime, we're left with a feverish public relations war in which the Army -- besieged by litigants, environmentalists, politicians, journalists and jittery residents -- is probably its own worst enemy. Same with its contractor, Raytheon Engineers & Constructors, from whom the workers' suit seeks unspecified damages.

To their own great detriment, both defendants in the suit botched some things during the crucial early hours of the 1999 incident, sowing the seeds of suspicion.

"Just minutes after we scrambled out of that building, while we were still throwing up on the ground, supervisors were already telling us it wasn't nerve gas," says Brian Zasso, the steamfitter. "Then they made us just wait there, two hours without hospital treatment, just to see what was going to happen to us before making any public statements."

No alarms were sounded. No public warnings were issued. No ambulances were promptly summoned. No hospitals were immediately alerted.

Raytheon spokesman Chris Early, who was there that day, says there was no need for instant calls for ambulances. "Workers were taken to the company's first-aid trailer at the work site and examined by very qualified EMTs," he says.

At 2:30 p.m., more than three hours after the workers were stricken, the Army finally notified the public -- with a news release. It greatly minimized what had happened, saying merely that "several workers experienced respiratory reactions to a noxious odor" and that "trained safety construction personnel responded."

No one died, but much later that day, 34 workers were treated at the nearby Hermiston hospital. Four were admitted. What really galled many of them was the Army's calm reassurance in the news statement that the incident "does not involve the chemical weapons stored at the depot." At that hour, 2:30 p.m., no testing for chemical agent had even begun inside the building where the workers were overwhelmed.

A rush to count out chemical leak
To those injured, it appeared that the Army and Raytheon were well-prepared for only one thing: to quickly and forcefully deny any possibility of a chemical-agent leak. As a result, news media all over the Northwest reported that evening that fumes from paint or epoxy or welding had injured the workers -- a pronouncement that was never confirmed in official investigations.

Thus the workers were hardly surprised when the Army's own subsequent investigation ruled out leaking chemical-warfare agent as culprits. Parallel investigations by Raytheon, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality supported the Army's finding but could pinpoint no industrial cause.

At the very least, the workers say, the Army should have ruled its investigation inconclusive, as OSHA did. Their lawsuit accuses the Army and Raytheon (now known as the Washington Demilitarization Co.) of working in concert to mislead the plaintiffs and public as well.

"It quickly became apparent that the Army wasn't going to help us, and Raytheon wasn't going to help us," says Dave Bosley, the injured millwright. "A week or two before the accident, they showed us a training video of what could happen in a nerve-gas leak, and then when it happened, they said it couldn't happen."

"They've lied and lied," said Jim Shaffer, the pipefitter. "But they couldn't cover themselves up from the Freedom of Information Act."

Using the FOIA, the workers' lawyer, James McCandlish of Portland, obtained from OSHA the Army's records from its own investigation.

"Previously," McCandlish says, "we considered the possibility that the Army and Raytheon weren't covering up but had just badly bungled things. The FOIA records, though, show that they did in fact find the cause of the mass poisoning and continued to cover it up."

His key allegations:

Four crucial hours elapsed Sept. 15, 1999, before the Army began testing for chemical agents inside the building, thus increasing the odds that any nerve agent would have dissipated.

Contrary to its public report, the Army did detect tiny but positive "hits" for both mustard and nerve agent in the building.

The Army, with Raytheon's participation, tested the wrong rooms, even though records show they knew where the workers had been injured.

Woloszyn, the depot commander, says the Army had excellent reasons for the four-hour delay on testing inside the building. First, crews had to make sure everyone was safely outside, he says. Then the building was sealed, and crews in mobile monitoring trucks weretested outdoors for chemical agent, and then were tested in nearby concrete bunkers, called "igloos." It was more important, before entering the building, to detect and stop any spilling of chemicals, he says. After the crews found no sign of a spill, they could go inside.

Yes, Woloszyn says, the interior testing did not match where all but one of the workers had been stricken. But that wasn't because of any conspiracy -- just the impossibility of making hoses from the monitoring trucks reach that far inside.

As for the positive "hits" of chemical agent -- well, when and if this case gets to court, the chemical-testing issue may prove difficult for the plaintiffs. The Army -- supported by OSHA and the DEQ -- will make jurors' eyes glaze over with complex testimony seeking to show that McCandlish and his legal team have naively misinterpreted the data. The Army will try to convince jurors that those positive "hits" for chemical agent were minuscule -- no different from what monitors would detect in most people's back yards.

Woloszyn says that if a plume of a leaking chemical agent had somehow reached the MDB that day, scores of the other 1,400 workers at the work site -- especially those outdoors -- would have been affected. Also, he says, although some of the injured people's symptoms matched those of nerve-gas victims, one crucial symptom was missing -- miosis.

That's a reduction of the eye's pupil to a pinpoint. Overwhelmingly, miosis was a symptom among the 5,000 Japanese injured in the 1995 nerve-gas attack in a Tokyo subway, "and it just wasn't present in this case," Woloszyn says.

McCandlish, representing the plaintiffs, says miosis wasn't noted by paramedics and doctors that day because they didn't know to look for it. "No one was ever alerted that a possible chemical-weapons event was under way," he says.

As a legal opponent, the Army can be ferocious. The workers learned that lesson recently after they thought they'd chalked up an unexpected ally, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. On Feb. 7, the Oregon DEQ received a zinger of a letter from the EPA's Seattle regional office, which had commissioned an independent review of the Umatilla accident -- and had reached a conclusion less rosy than the Army's.

"We are not completely certain that some chemical-agent degradation product cannot be ruled out," the EPA report said. "The low-level hits for GB (sarin nerve agent) by the perimeter air-monitoring network seem to indicate that agent releases may be occurring at the depot . . . "

Although the EPA report was careful to adhere to the government line -- "that it is unlikely that chemical agents were present" at the accident -- it went on to suggest that such a possibility cannot be ruled out. And it asked the DEQ to investigate why air monitors at the depot measured 59 positive "hits" of chemical-warfare agents last year from May 18 to July 17.

The letter drew an angry reaction from Woloszyn, the depot's commander. "Here's another report from someone who's never even been on the depot," he told The Oregonian. Under furious pressure from Army brass, the EPA quickly issued a news release, backing off on its report.

Denials don't serve public safety
While admirable in some ways, this vigorous defensiveness by the Army comes at a price. Its credibility, and the public's safety, might be better served with less energy spent on denying and more energy spent on investigating.

For instance, shouldn't the Army be the first to admit what common sense suggests and then address it? Chemical agents almost certainly must escape on occasion from some of those 89 igloos. We know some of the weapons inside have begun leaking -- that's one huge reason the incinerator is being built. And we know that most of the igloos have open vents and drains, and that they are monitored periodically, not continuously.

Instead, we hear this from the depot commander, in an interview with The New York Times: "We've never had agent detected outside of the igloos themselves."

To John Tucker, the injured welding inspector, that sounds like clever disinformation. "The Army has it pretty well set up so they'll never discover agent outside the igloos," he says. "That gives them deniability."

Instead of taking extraordinary steps to be forthright and credible in the face of adversity, depot officials have circled the wagons. True, they're being sued, but many of the plaintiffs say they never would have gone after the Army if it had been more open and less eager to rush to self-serving conclusions. The reality is that the Army added insult to the workers' injuries -- if not through deception, then at least the appearance of deception.

Hoping the truth blows in
One telling example: the wind. In its official report, and in a letter to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the Army claimed that the wind at the time of the accident was blowing away from the work site and toward the chemical bunkers -- indicating that leaking nerve agent couldn't have reached the workers.

The workers' lawyers, however, discovered that the Army's own meteorological records for that day at Umatilla show just the opposite. The wind was blowing from the west, across some of the chemical bunkers and straight at the workers. OSHA's report confirms that, too.

An outright lie by the Army or just ineptitude? Woloszyn says it's neither -- just another case of outsiders looking at documents they aren't qualified to interpret accurately. What those statements meant, he says, is that the wind was not blowing toward the work site from any igloos that had been opened by operations crews that morning.

"Communications were identified as one of the things we need to improve on," Woloszyn says. "We could have done better. We've got to be open, and we try to be. If I've been misleading, it certainly wasn't deliberate."

Woloszyn bristles at references to the FOIA being used by the plaintiffs. All of the Army's records on the 1999 incident are freely available to anyone for inspection at the Umatilla Depot, he says. McCandlish, the plaintiff's lawyer, responds that he used FOIA after being denied access to the construction site on grounds that his requested visit to look at the accident scene was "non-mission-related."

On March 9, The Oregonian invited the Army to submit a guest column, explaining its handling of the 1999 incident, to run alongside this commentary piece. After initially accepting the offer, officials backed out at the last moment, saying the Army might have something to say later.

This is an agency so nervous that it criticizes news media for using the term "nerve gas" instead of "nerve agents" (even though tons of the weapons themselves are clearly stamped "gas"). Last year, depot spokeswoman Mary Binder complained to The Oregonian's public editor that the "nerve agents" are stored in liquid form, even though they are designed to turn gaseous by the time they kill people.

Deb Re: Possible Coverup at Umatilla Chemical Depot (Currently 0 replies)
Posted At 16:11:04 03/20/2001

Thanks for posting this so everyone can get a good idea about whats going on. When I spoke of L & I I was referring to Oregon workers comp. The accident happened in Oregon and that is where we are fighting for help on this. What is really sad is we know others that are still working on this job site and also living in the area. Thanks again for posting the artical.

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