Take a deep breath.

After five years of legal wrangling, a Portland judge is poised to decide whether 49 construction workers at the U.S. Army's Umatilla Chemical Depot in Hermiston were poisoned by nerve gas--or are suffering from mass hysteria.

The decision of U.S. District Court Judge Dennis Hubel will not only dramatically affect the workers, who suffer a variety of ailments, but may also trigger a major headache for the Army in its long march to incinerate the depot's 3,717 tons of lethal munitions such as VX, sarin and mustard gas.

The hardhats say they were overcome by an unknown toxic agent on Sept. 15, 1999, while working on the facility in which the Army plans to incinerate its nerve gas. They now report maladies ranging from lung damage to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their lawsuit, filed in 2001, claims that the Army bungled its response to the incident, didn't alert hospital doctors to commonsense steps for treating potential exposure, and rushed out a press release reassuring the public there had been no leak--before it even checked to see if any gas escaped. They also say the Army's own tests showed levels of nerve gas in the atmosphere.

The Army says no traces of nerve agents were ever detected and insists that, whatever may or may not be wrong with the workers, it's not the Army's fault.

Judge Hubel has already decided that the Army's response was "inadequate," but he has not yet issued a ruling on the key question of whether there was a leak.

A victory for the workers would be a major embarrassment for the Army--and could shift public perception about the incinerator, which the government has spent 19 years and a staggering $2.4 billion to build.

"It could significantly delay or even derail the project," says Karyn Jones, executive director of GASP, a local group opposed to the incineration.

GASP, the Sierra Club and other environmental advocates have filed a series of lawsuits to stop the burn, charging that the Army has mismanaged the project while state environmental regulators have looked the other way. "It's been like the Three Stooges," says Bob Palzer, a retired chemistry professor who leads the Sierra Club's effort to stop the incineration.

Instead of burning the weapons, the Sierra Club supports chemical neutralization, which can be accomplished, Palzer says, simply by mixing the agent with warm water.

Army brass and state regulators say incineration is the best way to get rid of the aging stockpile of chemical weapons. "We believe this technology can be safely constructed, safely tested and safely operated," says Dennis Murphey, administrator of the chemical demilitarization program of the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Whichever way he decides, Hubel's ruling--expected by month's end--looks certain to make someone sputter.

More information about the Umatilla Chemical Depot can be found at www.gasp-info.org and www.deq.state.or.us/umatilla .