Opening Doors

Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
An "igloo," or concrete bunker, which used to hold chemical weapons at the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston in Eastern Oregon

Plans to redevelop a World War II-era chemical weapons depot could transform an undeveloped pocket of Northeastern Oregon.

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From Interstate 84 near Hermiston in Eastern Oregon is a vast expanse of mostly flat land that is a little-known sober part of U.S. military history.

This arid shrub steppe is home to 1,000 “igloos,” or concrete bunkers, overlaid with earth, which once held 500-pound bombs and chemical weapons.

The Umatilla Army Ordnance depot was constructed by the U.S. Army in the early 1940s to aid the American war effort in World War II. As the Cold War intensified in the 1960s, the facility’s mission was updated, and it was rebranded as the Umatilla Chemical Depot, where it housed 11% of the U.S. chemical weapon supply, including sarin and mustard gas.

500lbTNTBombsiniglooThe concrete bunkers housed explosive materials during and after World War II. Photo from 1941. Courtesy of Columbia Development Authority

The depot’s mission eventually became obsolete, and as part of the U.S. endorsement of the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, the Army began destroying the chemical weapons held at the site in the 2000s.

The last of the chemical weapons was incinerated in 2011. A year later, the Army deactivated the site, which set off a protracted process that will tentatively conclude with the handover of the site to local control in mid-2020.

Officials say this 17,000-acre stretch of land along the Columbia River, which used to hold a tenth of the U.S. chemical weapon supply, now offers a big opportunity to bring new business and economic development to the region.

The Columbia Development Authority is the local entity that will take possession of the chemical depot. It is comprised of five main stakeholders: county commissioners from Umatilla and Morrow counties; the two directors of the ports of Umatilla and Morrow; and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

After multiple meetings held over several years, the stakeholders agreed on a plan to carve up the 17,000-acre depot for different uses.

The Oregon National Guard will take 7,500 acres for a permanent training facility, which alone will be an “economic engine” for the area, according to Greg Smith, the Columbia Development Authority’s executive director.

Around 3,150 acres will be zoned for industry, which officials say presents a large opportunity.

“From the county’s side, this has been a black hole in both Morrow and Umatilla counties. It’s under federal ownership and there is no income that comes to the counties,” says Don Russell, chairman of the Columbia Development Authority and a commissioner of Morrow County.

“We still have to provide local government services to this piece of property with no income from the federal government to offset that.”

The depot straddles the border of Morrow County and Umatilla County.

Greg Smith and Don RussellDon Russell (right), chair of the Columbia Development Authority, and Greg Smith, executive director of the authority.  Photo: Jason E. Kaplan

Smith, who is also an Oregon state representative for House District 57, says the Columbia Development Authority laid out three key demands to the Army before taking it over.

“One, this property must be free; we’re not paying the Army for it. Second, it must be clean; all environmental issues have to be resolved.” The Environmental Protection Agency certified that the site is clean, and the Army is also monitoring the area in case any unknown environmental issues crop up, which would be assumed by the Army, says Smith.

The third prerequisite is that the site needs to have adequate water. In this arid part of the state, water access is vital, especially if it is to attract new industry. Water law is complex, but the authority’s board walked the Army through the process to ensure a smooth handover.

So what kind of redevelopment will the depot see? Certain things are off limits entirely due to the area’s history as a military site, including residential housing and schools for kids under 18.

Food processing is also restricted in some parts of the depot. The new training facility for the Oregon National Guard adds another layer of complexity.

Smith says that a “Fortune 5 or Fortune 10” company was interested but was nervous about setting up next to the training area. “They wanted assurances that tanks were not going to be rolling through their parking lot,” he says.

While redeveloping a former chemical weapons depot presents challenges, there are also attractive features that help explain the excitement.

“This land is flat as can be, for the most part. You’ve got power facilities there with the natural gas. You’ve got power infrastructure. Interstate 82, 84 and the Union Pacific mainline all come together,” Smith says.

There are four major cities in each direction — Seattle, Portland, Spokane and Boise. “Geographically, this is probably one of the finest pieces of industrial real estate in the Northwest.”

When the military shut down the facility nearly a decade ago, it left behind brand-new tools, empty offices, unused trucks and other useful equipment.

“Right out in these yellow buildings is a racking system that would make Amazon jealous. It is unreal. All the weapons came through on a conveyor belt-type system,” Smith says. “So at some point in time, we are going to find an industry that needs a high-level conveyor system. It’s right there.”

The authority’s board members keep specifics close to the vest, but they have their eyes on a handful of key industries, such as agriculture, manufacturing and processing, and potentially data centers, according to Ryan Neal, executive director of the Port of Morrow and a Columbia Development Authority board member.

“But there’s a lot of movement on green energies, there are a lot of solar activities. Those are all types of things that are potentials on the property,” Neal says. “There are not too many places you are able to get those types of acreages — contiguous and zoned correctly,” he says.

Then there are the thousand igloos dotting the landscape, which held bombs during World War II. One of the igloos exploded in 1944, killing six people.

“There was really nothing left. They found the door [of the igloo] over in Washington state,” Russell says. The authority agreed to put a memorial marker where the exploded igloo once stood.

Most sit empty, but a few are rented out to a local art foundry for storage. Smith says the authority is considering turning many more into storage units, which could be revamped to hold an RV or a boat.

“Geographically, this is probably one of the finest pieces of industrial real estate in the Northwest.” Greg Smith, executive director of the Columbia Development Authority

The plans are ambitious, and for this sparsely populated region, new industries could be transformative. A source of new job creation is enticing, particularly if the depot can attract high-wage industries.

But the vision could take decades to come to fruition, and the short-term goals are relatively modest. “I think you can see within five to seven years an industrial road built. I think you could see partitioning of real estate available for sale and promotion. I think you could see the beginning installation of industrial utilities,” Smith says.

One of the big decisions the authority will need to make when it takes control is where and how it will use some of the funds it has received from the state to make road improvements to better link the depot with the interstate.

Lede iglooOne of the site’s many “igloos,” or concrete bunkers, which used to hold chemical weapons.  

Not all of the depot will be intended for redevelopment. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation will receive around 4,000 acres and set aside much of it for conservation because it holds important cultural and spiritual importance.

The protected habitat area will also help support the burrowing owl population, which is dwindling in many parts of North America. The owls are staging a modest comeback at the depot due to the conservation efforts that have taken advantage of the fact that the land has been unused and off limits for years.

The Columbia Development Authority and the tribes agreed to do a joint solar project between the new tribal land and the industrial area. The solar array would act as a buffer, and the revenue will be split 50-50 between the tribes and the authority.

There was some disagreement from within the tribes that complicated the process. The federal government has certain obligations to the tribes, including requirements to safeguard and monitor cultural sites, which offers a degree of protection.

Some from within the tribes feared that those protections would go away under local ownership, according to Bill Tovey, the director of community and economic development for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

He represents the tribes at the Columbia Development Authority. “That’s a totally different mindset than what the county and the ports [have],” Tovey says, which is mainly geared toward economic development, a pursuit that is easier with the federal government gone.

Ultimately, however, the prospect of adding acreage was worth it. The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation — made up of the Cayuse, Umatilla and Walla Walla tribes — lived in much of Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon prior to the arrival of white settlers.

The tribes ceded 6.4 million acres in the Treaty of 1855, and the reservation now consists of 172,000 acres. “We want to get lands into tribal ownership,” Tovey adds.

The last box to check is the plan for how to mitigate the impacts on the Oregon Trail, which runs through the depot property. The Oregon Trail “brought disease and destruction to the tribes,” Tovey says.

However, it also has cultural value because “there were originally Indian trails that the Oregon Trail came across,” he says. As such, the tribes also want to conserve the area.

“Once that issue is resolved, we’re done,” Smith says. The Columbia Development Authority expects the transfer from the Army to local ownership by late spring or early summer.

At that time, the public may finally get a glimpse of a military site that has been heavily guarded since the 1940s.

Although the original mission of the Umatilla Chemical Depot is long gone, the remaining igloos offer a sober reminder of the area’s past, as well as the potential for a brighter future.

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