By Matthew Preusch
An unidentified worker inspects missiles containing sarin gas in a bunker at the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Hermiston in this undated file photo. A judge recently rejected a suit to stop the incineration of mustard agent at the site.The U.S. military can continue to dispose of chemical weapons stockpiled in eastern Oregon, a Portland judge has ruled.
Circuit Court Judge Michael Marcus rejected a lawsuit from a coalition of environmental and public interest groups challenging the state of Oregon's approval of the military's plan to incinerate Cold War-era mustard agent at the Umatilla Chemical Weapons Depot.
The groups questioned whether the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality was requiring the military to use the safest available method for disposing of the agent, some of which contains mercury, a neurotoxin
"We are confident in our technology in terms of eliminating the stockpile and in doing so safely and effectively," Col. Robert B. Billington, project manager for chemical stockpile elimination at the Umatilla site, said in a statement. "Scientifically, our technology continues to withstand these kinds of legal challenges and Judge Marcus' ruling once again shows that the best available technology is truly in place to ensure public safety and environmental protection."
Richard Condit, an attorney for the Government Accountability Project, which brought the suit, said the military destroyed its mustard agent stockpiles in Maryland without the emissions problems his group is concerned about at the Umatilla facility.
"It is a mystery why [the state] would allow a less protective technology to be used in Oregon," he said in an e-mail today. Condit said his group would likely appeal the ruling.
This summer, workers started destroying the first of the mustard agent stored in about 2,600 refrigerator-sized steel containers at the site.
The depot west of Hermiston is one of eight in the continental United States where the nation's toxic weapons have been kept for decades.
Under an international treaty, the U.S. has until 2012 to destroy all its chemical weapon stockpiles.
The site's roughly 1,200 workers have already destroyed about 41 percent of the Umatilla depot's 3,700 tons of chemical agents, including sarin and VX gasses.
The last of the weapons are expected to be destroyed in about two years, after which the site will be closed.