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Burning mad

HERMISTON, Ore. - Working around tons of deadly chemical weapons is just part of the job for Joe Vandecar. Even a series of bomb threats have not fazed him.

But when he thinks about all the money that he and his fellow workers at the Umatilla Chemical Depot are losing every time work is halted to check on a bomb threat, he gets mad.

"These guys are paid for the time they're on the job. That's it," Vandecar says.

Electricians, carpenters and other craftspeople have lost more than 40 hours in pay because of the bomb threats, says Vandecar's brother, Bob, a representative for the local chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electricians.

Joe Vandecar is one of the 1,000 workers who are building an incinerator to destroy one of the largest stockpiles of aging chemical weapons in the nation.

The Army depot, just west of Hermiston and near the Columbia River border with Washington, maintains about 220,000 weapons and containers filled with 7.4 million pounds of deadly nerve gas and mustard gas agents - about 12 percent of the nation's stockpile.

Anonymous bomb threats have halted work at the depot nine times since Feb. 28.

On some days when a bomb threat has come in, workers have been evacuated to a safe area - then brought back to work after authorities failed to find anything. Other days, they've been sent home - with just a few hours' pay in their pockets.

Many workers have grown frustrated with the bomb threats - and already are seeing dreams of buying homes or financing a child's education slip away, Bob Vandecar says.

Raytheon Demilitarization Co., which is supervising construction of the weapons incinerator, an electrical subcontractor and two union groups, are offering a $30,000 reward for information about the threats.

The incinerator, which is about two-thirds finished, is scheduled for completion in 2001.

Lt. Col. Thomas Woloszyn, who oversees operations at the depot, says it's not clear yet if the threats have pushed back the expected completion date.

"It takes you off your stride," Woloszyn says. "With each new threat that nothing happens, credibility is lost. But we have to take them all seriously."

FBI spokesman Gordon Compton and Army authorities have declined to comment on the investigation.

Workers say the bomb threats pale compared to an incident last fall when noxious fumes sickened 36 people at the depot. Investigators still don't know what caused the fumes.

The Vandecar brothers say workers don't know what to expect - or if the threats will be resolved.

"They are frustrated and very upset," says Bob Vandecar. "We know most of it's a hoax, but you can never get over the point that it might not be."

Most likely, he suspects the threats are coming from someone who is looking for attention. "It must be some individual getting a thrill out of watching people react," Bob Vandecar says. "It's frightening."

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