Umatilla, Oregon safety breach stalls burn of chemical weapons agent

Crews have temporarily quit burning chemical weapons at Umatilla's newly started incinerator after two workers walked through the wrong door -- into a room called the Toxic Cubicle.

Crews have temporarily quit burning chemical weapons at Umatilla's newly started incinerator after two workers walked through the wrong door -- into a room called the Toxic Cubicle.

Only workers in protective "moon suits" should enter that cubicle, which holds tanks that store liquid nerve agent that has been drained from rockets and awaits incineration. But the workers who wandered in Tuesday had a lower level of protection: gas masks and rubber clothing.

Fortunately for them, the incinerator has destroyed just 11 rockets since its Sept. 8 debut, so the cubicle's air held very low levels of sarin nerve agent. The workers have no symptoms, medical tests found no problems and they are back to work, said Doug Hamrick, project manager for the incinerator's contractor, Washington Group International.

But plant managers and state regulators say the error could have been much worse had it happened a few weeks later, when many more rockets will have been processed.

"That absolutely should not have happened," said Don Barclay, who manages the project for the U.S. Army, which owns the Umatilla Chemical Depot weapons storage site. "That situation simply has got to be fixed."

Dennis Murphey, who oversees Umatilla for Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality, called the workers' wandering "a very serious situation" and praised the site for calling a "safety stop" to its work. Murphey said plant officials should not restart until they find better ways to keep workers from being exposed to nerve agents without protection.

Hamrick said the two workers were sent into a secure area on Tuesday to collect bags of highly protective, full-body suits. Other workers had discarded those suits after using them to enter rooms tainted with nerve agent.

Any time workers are sent into incinerator-related areas, they get briefed on alternate exit routes, Hamrick said. These workers had been briefed on their route but wanted to test and make sure they knew the way before gathering the moon suits. Then they took a wrong turn.

"They literally went through, instead of the left door, the right door," said Hamrick.

He added that the error was "not their fault" but is seen as a management breakdown. Neither worker had experience in rooms contaminated with nerve agent, whereas most teams contain one member with such experience. Hamrick added that plant leaders are studying ways to avert such errors that include bigger warning signs on doors.

Umatilla officials discussed the problem Wednesday as they updated the first week of incineration. Barclay said there have been many successes, including destroying 11 rockets and moving 150 from storage igloos to the incinerator plant. A few other problems also have hit, including a valve that got stuck.

Also, 150 gallons of brine spilled when a worker accidentally left a hose attached to a tank overnight, and the wind blew the hose off. A concrete container caught the brine, which did not contain nerve agent or escape into the environment, officials said. And the destruction of the plant's first rocket was delayed at least four hours because a worker had accidentally hit an "emergency stop" button the night before.

Despite those problems -- three of them human errors -- plant leaders said their workers are well-trained and doing a good job managing the complex plant.

"We're doing hundreds of things" right, Hamrick said.

"We've made a few errors," he said. "I think there are some folks who need more proficiency. . . . But I'm not overly concerned."

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© 2004, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.