Army readies chemical weapons incinerator

Friday, July 25, 2003

ANNISTON, Ala. -- Fear and uncertainty are running high these days in the pink zone -- the area closest to the first Army chemical weapons incinerator to be built near homes, churches, schools and businesses.

With the destruction of munitions set to begin soon, some worry what will happen once workers start chopping up Cold War-era rockets, shells and mines and begin feeding them to the superheated flames. They have visions of terrified children running for shelter during an accident.

Others fear what could happen if the $1 billion incineration program does not get started. They are afraid of the 2,254 tons of nerve agents and mustard gas stored for decades in concrete bunkers in their community.

Sometime soon -- the military has not said exactly when, but it is shooting for late July -- the Army plans to begin destroying weapons at the Anniston Army Depot, about 50 miles east of Birmingham.

Environmentalists have sued to try to stop the work and the state has yet to give its final approval, but the Pentagon is pressing ahead.

Seated outside her mobile home, Debra Echtle says she hates living just down the road from a weapons stockpile big enough to kill millions. But she also fears the Army's solution.

"I want to move back to Texas. I want to just get away from it," says Echtle, whose daughter and 2-week-old granddaughter live with her. Referring to the newborn, Echtle says: "She deserves a chance to live."

The Army insists incineration is a safe way to dispose of the weapons. The risks posed by the weapons stockpile are at least 200 times more serious than any dangers from the incinerator, the military says.

As proof, the Army says it has destroyed some 8,100 tons of munitions at isolated incinerators in the Pacific and Utah without anyone being seriously hurt by the chemicals. One person was crushed to death by a machine.

"If folks will just trust us, we can do this job," says Mike Abrams, a spokesman for the Anniston incinerator project. "We know the community is going to be so relieved when we have completed our mission."

While the Army denies that the incinerator poses a safety risk, never before has the military burned deadly nerve agents so close to a large community. Some 250,000 people live within 30 miles of the Anniston site.

Cathy Coleman, a spokeswoman for the federal Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program in Anniston, says about $140 million has been spent safeguarding the community.

Special air filters and ventilation systems have been installed in 10 nearby schools to ward off fumes in an accident, but work continues at 28 more schools, says David Ford of the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency.

Evacuation routes have been mapped out, but only 12,500 protective hoods have been distributed to the 35,000 people living within nine miles of the incinerator -- the pink zone. Sirens and some 30,000 tone radios will alert people to an accident.

More than 9,700 shelter kits -- cardboard boxes containing duct tape, plastic sheeting, scissors and a training video for sealing up a room during an accident -- have been given out along with air filtration systems.

Calhoun County resident Beverly Carlisle is near despair over the safety of the 90 children at Ms. B's Child Care Center, which she owns.

She says there is no way to make her daycare center airtight since it is located in a combination of mobile homes and a frame building. There is also no way to quickly get protective hoods on 90 children, she says, and businesses are not provided with the equipment anyway.

Carlisle figures her best option during an accident might be to rush children across the street to Coldwater Elementary School, which is equipped with the filtering equipment. But she says there is little chance of getting so many children even that far in the three or four minutes officials say would be required.

"If something happens, I think we'll pretty much be dead," she says.

Tasha Salter's family has a plan if any gas escapes: They will meet in the parking lot at Six Flags Over Georgia, just west of Atlanta. She keeps a roll of duct tape stored in the glove compartment of her car to tape up the vents in case of an accident.

The hoods are made of clear plastic with a battery-powered fan that blows filtered air over the wearer's face.

Aside from the distribution of similar hoods on Capitol Hill after the anthrax scare, the government has never before provided civilians with safety gear on such a large scale, says CENTECH Group Inc., the company hired to hand out the equipment to all residents free of charge.

The Anniston depot stores about 7 percent of the nation's chemical weapons stockpile, which is supposed to be destroyed by 2007 under international treaty. The Anniston incinerator is expected to run at least through 2010.

In all, the United States will dispose of some 31,500 tons of lethal chemical weapons in a project expected to cost about $24 billion. About a fourth of the stockpile already has been destroyed at incinerators in Tooele, Utah, and on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific.

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