Chemical Warfare: Bureaucratic Infighting Cripples Public Safety Effort

By Zaitz, Les | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, July/August 2002 | Go to article overview

Chemical Warfare: Bureaucratic Infighting Cripples Public Safety Effort


Zaitz, Les, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


COVER STORY

RADIOACTIVE WASTE

Mike McCullough, a veteran Oregon State Police lieutenant, was troubled.

For two weeks, he worked in a new assignment to run a program to protect Eastern Oregonians from deadly chemical weapons stored at a U.S. Army depot.

The program - the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program - had struggled in Oregon for a decade. Government agencies had chewed through $50 million and still couldn't protect people.

McCullough decided only bold action would jolt slumbering bureaucrats into action.

In August 2000, McCullough shocked many of his colleagues by resigning.

"I hope every elected official and bureaucrat involved in this whole process understands this state trooper gave up a $72,000-a-year job to make a point. This entire process is an insane merry-go-round," McCullough said in a public statement.

The resignation didn't produce the results McCullough wanted, and it wasn't big news beyond Pendleton. The Oregonian carried a wire service account inside its metro section.

Still, a story mentioning "chemical weapons" and "insane merry-go-- round" aroused my curiosity. Who was this guy? What was this program? What was so insane about it?

Six months later, The Oregonian's five-part series "Umatilla: Mistrust and Money," answered those questions.

The series, published April 22-26, reported that the chemical safety program was crippled for a decade by bureaucratic infighting among jealous local, state and federal agencies. "Umatilla" showed how two powerful personalities clashed so sharply that public safety seemed secondary to personal victory. The series documented agencies wasting money on untested technology, inappropriate equipment, and perquisites that had little to do with guarding against nerve gas.

Program evolution

Nerve agents had been sitting since the 1960s in concrete igloos at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, 200 miles east of Portland, Ore. The Army base is one of eight in the country warehousing missiles and rockets left from the Cold War. Most are filled with deadly nerve agents such as sarin and VX. A pinpoint-- sized droplet can kill a human in moments.

The Army planned to burn the munitions to comply with congressional orders to get rid of the stuff. Congress also directed the Army to prepare nearby civilians in case of disaster during the destruction process. The caution was prudent. Army experts estimated that if Umatilla's weapons were accidentally vaporized, a deadly cloud would float through Oregon and Washington communities, killing thousands.

CSEPP's mission is to protect the 26,000 people living in small towns like Irrigon, Hermiston, and Echo. Local agencies were to prepare either to evacuate communities or give civilians rudimentary gear to seal themselves in their homes against a poisonous cloud. The chemical program also was to build police and medical capabilities.

When McCullough quit, Oregon's program was in disarray. Finding out what happened didn't require sexy investigative techniques. Instead, the reporting relied on the basic grunt work of pawing through documents and interviewing officials. "Umatilla" was unusual because we had to trace the evolution of the program over a decade.

Early interviews established that local officials for years had been screaming for basic emergency gear. They were ignored or fed vague promises. So where had $50 million gone over 10 years?

Tracing the spending required assembling thousands of pages of budget documents. They weren't all in one place because of the complexity of federal funding.

Tracing, for instance, the history of better radio gear for cops started in budget documents from two counties. The counties got the budget ball rolling by writing a request for money and justification. They passed their proposed budget to the branch office of the state Emergency Management Division. …

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