Law: no new chemical weapons to Umatilla

WASHINGTON (AP) – A new law signed by President Bush includes a provision blocking the Defense Department from studying the feasibility of moving chemical weapons materials across state lines to Oregon or other states, Sen. Ron Wyden said Thursday.

The measure was included in a special bill authorizing an additional $82 billion for Iraq, Afghanistan, and military efforts worldwide. The president signed the measure Wednesday, a day after it was given final approval by the Senate.

Wyden, D-Ore., said the law would ensure that dangerous chemical weapons would not be shipped to the Umatilla Chemical Depot in Eastern Oregon for at least one year. The Army already had dropped plans for a study last month.

“As of today, the Defense Department will no longer be able to even consider moving dangerous chemical weapons materials across state lines into our local communities,” Wyden said in a news release.

Instead of increasing the risk to Eastern Oregon residents, the Defense Department “can now focus exclusively on securing and permanently cleaning up the chemical risks that are currently in place,” Wyden said.

Wyden said he and Colorado Sens. Wayne Allard and Ken Salazar sponsored the measure temporarily barring the Pentagon from paying for any study on the feasibility of transporting chemical munitions from the Pueblo Chemical Depot in Colorado to unidentified out-of-state sites to be destroyed. One of the sites being considered was Umatilla.

Allard is a Republican, while Salazar is a Democrat.

The Army announced in April that chemical weapons transport across state lines was no longer under consideration, after lawmakers objected. The Army had earlier said it planned a three-month study on the feasibility of transporting chemical stockpiles out of Colorado, Kentucky and Indiana to other states, at a cost of nearly $150,000.

The Pentagon has conducted three previous studies on the issue, all of which concluded that transporting weapons to other states is impractical.

The new law also blocks the Defense Department from redirecting any money earmarked for chemical weapons disposal at the Colorado site or the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., tacked on the provision, which ensures that $813 million appropriated to the two sites in previous budgets will not be transferred elsewhere.

The Umatilla Depot became the focus on an internal split within the Oregon delegation last week, when two groups of lawmakers sent separate letters to a base-closing commission asking that the state’s military installations be spared.

Wyden and two Republicans – Sen. Gordon Smith and Rep. Greg Walden – asked the panel to protect Umatilla, as well as Air National Guard bases in Portland and Klamath Falls.

A separate letter by four House Democrats omitted any mention of Umatilla, focusing instead on the National Guard bases.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said the House Democrats were concerned that a letter endorsing a long-term role for Umatilla could inadvertently fuel the Army’s interest in shipping weapons into Oregon from out of state.

The depot, one of eight sites around the country storing the nation’s stockpile of chemical weapons, has about 7.4 million pounds of deadly nerve and blister agents in a variety of munitions. The facility began destruction of its weapons last fall under orders by Congress and an international treaty.

Kristine Greco, a spokeswoman for DeFazio, said Thursday the Oregon Democrat remains concerned about supporting a long-term role for Umatilla.

While the new law bars any Pentagon study for at least a year, “it doesn’t prevent the law from being changed and allowing more weapons to be shipped to Eastern Oregon,” Greco said.