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Oregon Editors Say

An opportunity for Governor K

Plans to ship chemical weapons into Oregon may require a McCall gesture

The Oregonian

Gov. Ted Kulongoski obviously sees an opportunity to pull himself out of the state's deep fiscal funk and polish up his image. He is urging the Army to drop its talk of transporting chemical weapons across state lines.

That's heartening, but if Kulongoski really wants to stand up to the Pentagon, he should recall that the late Tom McCall once threatened to lay his body in front of any new shipments of chemical weapons into Oregon.

McCall made his flamboyant vow in 1969, when the military proposed moving chemical warfare agents from Okinawa to the Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot in Oregon. After a stormy battle, the Nixon administration backed down, the weapons were moved instead to Johnston Atoll in the Pacific, and Oregon's headline-grabbing governor added luster to his legend.

Now history may be about to repeat itself. The Army acknowledged this week it is looking into shipping deadly chemical agents across state lines to speed up the nation's lagging program to destroy stockpiles of these weapons. Some of those proposed shipments would undoubtedly go to the Umatilla depot in northeastern Oregon.

Such shipments would be a radical departure from original Army plans developed in the 1980s. Disposal facilities were to be built alongside each of the nation's eight chemical weapons depots, including Umatilla. The entire stockpile was to be destroyed by 2007 under an international treaty.

— But the Army isn't going to make it. A five-year extension will be requested, but disposal plants at depots in Colorado and Kentucky still wouldn't be ready in time to make a 2012 deadline.

The military admitted last week it had studied options including shipping nerve agents and mustard gas from Colorado and Kentucky to states with functioning disposal facilities. Umatilla is among those; its gigantic new incinerator has been up and running since August.

Interstate shipping of these Cold War relics is a wildly dangerous idea, far more hazardous than the transport of most nuclear waste.

The Army's proposal is a maddening curveball flung at the state of Oregon, which granted permits for the Umatilla incineration under an agreement that no additional weapons would be brought in. The shipments also would be a breach of faith with about 40,000 Umatilla-area Oregonians already resigned to living in the incinerator's hazard zone at least through 2009.

Federal law bars such shipments, but Congress could change that. President Bush could simply declare an emergency and order the shipments ' which in our view would greatly increase any terrorist threat.

The Oregon and Washington congressional delegations must see that no such scenario happens. But if it somehow does, the Northwest is going to need someone with McCall-style courage to lie down in front of this approaching train.

Governor K, your predecessor's spirit beckons.