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Finding light from a dark story

In the April 1st column of Act Locally, I referred to an experimental facility being developed by NextEra Energy Resources (along with several partners). The Wheatridge Renewable Energy Facility will capture electricity produced by weather-dependent wind turbines and solar panels by using specialized batteries in hopes of making intermittently generated energy more accessible to customers.

What I did not mention in the initial article was that online sources described the Wheatridge facility as being situated near Umatilla.

For anyone who grew up in Oregon in the 1960s, the name “Umatilla” is steeped in infamy. As I talked to people, I began to realize that many Oregonians are no longer familiar with that dark part of our state’s history — one that luckily has a happy ending.

In 1940, as the U.S. Army was building up armaments in anticipation of going to war, land near Umatilla was singled out for munitions storage.

According to Oregon.gov, “The site was chosen because it was safe from sea attacks, and it was close to railroad lines and a port on the Columbia River. North-central Oregon’s relatively mild climate, low humidity, and sparse population were also factors. ...”

During WWII and into the 1950s, the Army stockpiled conventional weapons at the Umatilla Army Ordinance Depot. A tragic accident in 1944, in which six soldiers were killed during an explosion, drew public awareness to the site.

Sometime after WWII, the depository’s name was changed to the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Between 1962 and 1969, the Army shipped chemical weapons to the facility for storage. These included “chemical warfare agents VX and GB (nerve agents) and HD (blister or ‘mustard’ agent). ... Chemical weapons stored at the Depot represented about 12% of the nation’s original chemical weapons stockpile.” (bit.ly/2vgKnKz)

With more pressing issues to protest, like DDT and the Vietnam War, the Umatilla depot fell off my radar screen. I went away to college, and didn’t think about the facility again until the name “Umatilla” surfaced in discussions about the NextEra project.

My immediate concern was if Wheatridge was to be installed atop the old chemical depository. I presumed the nerve agents had long since been destroyed — but had they? Was this new project safe? Perhaps it was a practical way to make use of the land. I needed to find out.

The good news is that the chemical weapons are gone; the bad news is that they had been stored, intact, for much longer than I would have ever imagined.

In 1988, the U.S. government included the Army base on its Base Realignment and Closure list. However, not until 1996, under the new moniker of the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, did it actually begin to incinerate the chemical weapons. More troubling, the task was not fully completed until 2011.

Note the irony: the period during which Oregon continued to house a diminishing number of chemical weapons coincided with U.S. military action in Iraq — justified by false reports of weapons of mass destruction.

Dan Duso, of the Pendleton branch of the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) was on site to observe the depository’s entire trajectory, from the construction of the first concrete bunkers, known as “igloos,” in which the chemicals were contained, until the last weapons had been destroyed. He pointed out that the incineration process was conducted in accordance with President Regan’s agreement with the Soviet Union regarding mutual reduction of weapons of mass destruction. Dan assured me that, under the DEQ’s watchful eye, numerous tests were conducted to confirm that the area’s air and soil were free of dangerous chemical levels.

Nonetheless, the 8,000 square acres, upon which the estimated 40-80 igloos had housed the bombs, were gifted to the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR) to manage as a wildlife refuge. Apparently, the surface above the igloos had become a haven for native desert plants and animals. Most interestingly, at that site, the endangered burrowing owl had been nurtured back from near extinction through the efforts of naturalist, David H. Johnson. (https://bit.ly/2ZrPF3N)

The former base’s remaining acreage was divided between the National Guard and local industrial developers. As far as I could ascertain, no energy-production facilities sit directly atop the land in question. However, electricity-generating plants surround the site. Several wind turbine projects exist to the north near the Columbia River. The town of Boardman, at the north-east corner of the former base, hosts a plant that derives energy from coal. Three natural gas electricity plants are also located in the region.

According to Mark Morgan, spokesman for the nearby City of Hermiston, the new Wheatridge facility will be installed south of the former Army base, spread out over land that used to be farmed as “dry” wheat fields (fields watered only by rain(, valued at $500 peracre (compared to the $1500/acre for irrigated farmland). Mark indicated that Calpine has constructed a plant that awaits the extra energy generated from the new wind turbines to go into full production. This all promises to bode well for their county tax revenues.

So, how does any of this impact Ashland? Right now, our city receives a tiny amount of electricity from the existing wind farms along the Columbia (the rest of our energy coming from hydroelectric dams, and nuclear power produced across the river in eastern Washington). Notice on the chart above, that southern Jackson County produces energy from only two sources: bio-gas and solar. According to Tom McBartlett, Ashland Director of Electric, a study of potential wind-power “... in the area was done by an outside party, possibly a developer, and ... they concluded the potential was low.” No wind turbines for us.

However, the operative question is, if the Wheatridge battery-storage technology pans out, might Ashland be able to employ it to capture the intermittent solar electricity we produce locally, once our contract with BPA is completed in 2028?

Ashland resident, author and anthropologist Nina Egert has been a lay environmentalist since the early 1970s.

Oregon Department of Energy