The sirens go silent.
The Umatilla Chemical Depot reached a milestone last week that will allow the state, and the world, to breathe easier - literally as well as figuratively.
On Oct. 25, the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency completed the incineration of the last of 3,717 tons of chemical weapons at the Northeastern Oregon site, about 12 percent of the U.S. stockpile.
The weapons had been stored at the 20,000-acre military installation near Hermiston since 1962. The depot initially included conventional weapons as well as chemical weapons, but the conventional stockpile was removed in 1994. Plans for destruction of the chemical weapons began after the United States signed the 1993 international Chemical Weapons Convention, which outlaws the production, storage and use of such weapons.
The deadline for destroying all chemical weapons is next year, but the United States stepped up its disposal planning after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The government feared that its storage sites would become targets for further attacks, or that the stored weapons would fall into terrorist hands.
The safety record at the Hermiston depot included some serious incidents - a 500-pound bomb accidentally exploded in March 1944, killing six people; 30 construction workers were overcome by an unknown substance in September 1999, but survived; a worker was exposed to a small amount of mustard blister agent in 2010. The people who worked and lived at or near the installation during its 70-year history constantly were aware that an explosion or fire among the chemical weapons stored there could endanger their lives. Seventy-six sirens were mounted on 50-foot-tall poles in eight communities in Oregon and Washington to warn of emergencies, and drills were conducted regularly.
Even the plan to incinerate the chemical weapons raised concerns, primarily about the possibility of some of the toxic agents escaping into the air despite the disposal plant's elaborate air pollution control system. The Sierra Club and other organizations went to court to try to halt the program at Hermiston and at storage sites in Alabama, Arkansas and Utah, but they were unsuccessful.
The Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility began construction in 1997 and was completed in 2001. It contained a natural gas furnace capable of heating its contents to 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit. Incineration of the more deadly nerve agents - sarin, completed in 2007, and VX, completed in 2009 - came first, followed by weapons containing mustard blister agents.
The elimination of the weapons at Hermiston cost nearly $2.7 billion, but considering the result, it was money well spent. Fears of explosions and accidents in the course of the disposal program turned out to be unfounded. As of last week, 89 percent of the U.S. chemical weapons had been destroyed, with some weapons remaining to be eliminated in Colorado, Kentucky and Utah.
All but seven of the 195 nations recognized by the United Nations have signed the treaty banning chemical weapons, and at least 70 facilities are reported to be destroying or preparing to destroy the remaining known stores of chemical weapons, estimated at more than 30,000 tons.
It's a sign that most of the world's nations acknowledge the horrors and inhumanity of chemical warfare. It's an example the nations would do well to apply in the future to other areas of international relations.