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Gearing Up to Destroy Weapons

Residents in Alabama are equipped -- but not necessarily ready for -- the incineration of chemical agents, set to start Wednesday.

August 05, 2003|Ken Ellingwood | Times Staff Writer

ANNISTON, Ala. — These are uneasy days for this slice of eastern Alabama -- a mood perhaps best understood by considering the unusual packages that Calhoun County officials are passing out to residents.

The cardboard boxes contain high-tech gas masks -- see-through protective hoods with a built-in fan and filtering system -- plus portable air filters and sheets of plastic and duct tape for the home.

The hoods are being distributed to the 35,000 residents who live closest to a new military incinerator that on Wednesday is scheduled to begin burning a decades-old stockpile of chemical weapons, despite organized opposition and some community queasiness over a possible accident. Those who live farther away get some of the protective equipment but not the hoods.

"I'm nervous," said Haley Joiner, a 25-year-old hairstylist. She was standing in line Monday to get protective equipment at the distribution center on the grounds of Ft. McClellan, a shuttered Army base here. "People make mistakes. What if they drop something? Then what? We're dead."

Residents were asking a lot of what-if questions, and talking a lot about praying, even as activists opposing the incineration plan went to federal court Monday in Washington, D.C., to block the start-up of the weapons burner at the nearby Anniston Army Depot.

Storage Is Also Risky

The U.S. Army, which is to dispose of the 2,254 tons of nerve agents and mustard agents contained in rockets and artillery shells, insists that its plan to burn the toxins and their containers at extreme temperatures is far safer than continuing to store them at the depot, where they could fall prey to terrorist attack, accidental release or leakage.

U.S. military officials last week won a state hazardous-waste permit for the incineration and immediately scheduled destruction of the first sarin-laden M-55 rockets for this week, following months of controversy and bumpy negotiations with the state's politicians.

The issue has created a lot of divided opinion around Anniston. Although a group of mayors near the depot had urged the Army to begin the burning as soon as possible, Gov. Bob Riley declined to add his signature to the start-up after the Army rebuffed his request for authority to shut down the program if he saw fit.

The Anniston depot is one of eight sites around the country where chemical and nerve agents are stored and designated for disposal under an international chemical-weapons compact joined by the United States in 1997. With about 7% of the chemical stockpile, Anniston would be the third such depository to begin destroying the weapons, joining sites in Utah and Maryland.

The Utah site, known as the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility, is the only other U.S. location that has relied on incineration. The Maryland facility, at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, employs a process known as chemical neutralization, which destroys the agents by treating them with water and other chemicals to render them harmless.

Incinerators have been built at two other depositories in Arkansas and Oregon but are not yet operating. The three remaining chemical-weapons depots -- in Indiana, Colorado and Kentucky -- are to destroy the toxins through the chemical treatment.

Opponents charge that incineration is risky because of the possible release of toxins into the air, especially in this populated area that includes Anniston, a city of 24,000, and its surrounding communities. They say that the Utah site has experienced the inadvertent release of chemical agents into the environment but note that at least it is far away from where people live.

"It's irresponsible. It's dangerous," said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, based in Berea, Ky.

"There are safer ways to do this, and the track record of this technology ... demonstrates the impropriety of trying to perform this task in a populated area."

An estimated 250,000 people live within 30 miles of the Anniston depot and its $1-billion incinerator, which was completed in 2001. Military officials agreed to a number of safety measures to prevent harm to residents in case of an accident during the weapons disposal, which is expected to take seven years to complete.

In dozens of schools, certain designated areas such as gymnasiums are being made airtight and outfitted with equipment to filter the air and pressurize the indoors in order to keep noxious fumes from wafting inside.

Residents who live within six miles of the depot -- a ring known as the "pink zone" -- are receiving the protective hoods, room filters and the so-called shelter kits: plastic sheets, tape, a cloth towel to stuff under the door and scissors for trimming the plastic sheets. Those up to nine miles away receive the filters and shelter kits but no hoods; those up to 30 miles away receive only the shelter kits.

A Dubious Distinction

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