PORTLAND, Ore. - A chemical weapons depot used by the Army that has weathered bomb threats and false alarms now faces a lawsuit from workers who claim they were sickened by highly toxic nerve and mustard agents.
The 18 workers, who are building an incinerator at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, claim the Army is hiding leaks that occurred on Sept. 15 - the day they became sick.
''I remember it hitting so hard it was like being punched in my chest. Every breath you took, there was searing pain,'' said David Bosley, 37, a millwright.
''Men were falling, men were crying, men were retching,'' he said.
In filing the federal lawsuit Monday, lawyer James E. McCandlish sought an injunction to halt construction of the incinerator in eastern Oregon near Hermiston until certain safety protections are in place. The suit also seeks compensation and damages for the workers.
McCandlish said the workers are suffering in large part because they weren't treated for chemical exposure.
''If the Army would've owned up to what it was immediately, the workers could have gotten treatment that would have made their symptoms less intense and less permanent,'' he said.
The Army has been storing chemical agents at the depot since 1962, and says it has never had a chemical release that threatened the health of employees, the public or the environment.
Mary Binder, an Army spokeswoman, said several agencies, including the Army, the state, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, had concluded that chemical agents stored at the depot did not cause the workers' sickness.
''No one who has looked at that data, who is trained to interpret that data, has concluded that the chemical agents stored at the depot were involved in the Sept. 15 incident,'' Binder said.
Army officials suspect McCandlish is looking at raw data, which could be misinterpreted without the necessary information about how the air monitoring machines are calibrated, Binder said.
Built during the Cold War, the Umatilla depot contains more than 3,000 tons of deadly nerve and mustard agents, or about 11 percent of the nation's chemical-weapons stockpile. They are to be destroyed after completion of the incinerator, scheduled for October 2001.
The depot has been hit by problems in the last year.
On Dec. 30, 1999, a system built to broadcast warnings of an emergency at the depot sent out a false alarm. Not only was there no leak, but the warnings - blared out through loudspeakers - told people in Spanish, but not in English, to get indoors.
Also, there were at least 11 bomb threats called in over two months earlier this year, temporarily halting work on the incinerator.
The 18 workers represented by McCandlish were among 34 who were overcome by fumes on Sept. 15, he said. They work for a company contracted by the Army to build the incinerator.
On the Net: http://umatilla.sbccom.army.mil