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November 11, 1999

Wyden: Planned funding decrease could hurt Umatilla Depot safety

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) -- A planned decrease in funding for the Umatilla Chemical Depot could hurt the response to a chemical weapons emergency, Sen. Ron Wyden says.

The Oregon Democrat on Tuesday asked the Federal Emergency Management Agency "how a fully protective program can be put in place," given the budget plans.

Wyden raised questions after seeing a General Accounting Office report that said Oregon and Washington state towns near the Hermiston, Ore., facility have made progress in preparing for a possible chemical weapons emergency since the GAO last reported on emergency preparedness in 1997.

But the investigative arm of Congress found that some key equipment was missing in both states, such as tone-alert radios that warn residents of an accident, and kits people can use to seal a room to keep out chemical agents.

"This study makes clear that critical equipment for the Umatilla Depot to respond to a possible chemical weapons emergency is not in place," Wyden said in a statement. "I sincerely hope that the Army and FEMA don't cut back assistance when the counties need it most."

The Army and FEMA plan to reduce funding for emergency preparedness from $3.9 million next year to about $2.7 million by 2006.

A FEMA spokeswoman said she had not seen the GAO report or a Tuesday letter from Wyden to FEMA Director James Lee Witt, which outlined Wyden's concerns.

But Mary Margaret Walker said the agency is familiar with the budget concerns.

"We're working very hard to come out with some kind of solution," she said.

FEMA and Army officials met with state and local officials Tuesday at FEMA's Washington, D.C., headquarters to discuss Umatilla depot funding.

Walker was unable to say what -- if anything -- resulted from the all-day meeting.

The GAO report also found that the preparedness program lacks an overall plan that defines missions, roles and outcomes, and that the plan also lacks involvement from local, county and state emergency officials.

FEMA should work closely with state and local officials in Oregon to develop effective plans, the GAO said.

Congress in 1985 ordered the Defense Department to destroy the U.S. stockpile of chemical weapons, and the Army is carrying out the directive at eight U.S. locations, including Umatilla.

The Army is building a $1.2 billion incinerator plant in Oregon to destroy weapons containing more than 3,000 tons of nerve and mustard agents. The facility is about two-thirds complete, and federal officials expect to begin incinerating the weapons late in 2001.

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