If only Alabama was farther away

Chemical weapons incinerators leak in Utah, as a new one comes online in Anniston

As early as this summer, the good people of Anniston, Ala., will see the opening of a technological wonder that's sure to bring much attention to their fair city.

The wonder is a $1 billion incinerator, built by the U.S. Army, that's supposed to render harmless 2,254 tons of the Army's deadliest chemical weapons.

Right now, those chemicals — sarin gas, VS nerve agent, mustard gas — are inside M-55 rockets that are slowly decaying in guarded warehouses and underground bunkers in the Anniston Army Depot.

As part of the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, the Army is destroying the rockets — chemical toxins, metal parts, explosives, propellants and all — by vaporizing them at a temperature of 2,700 degrees.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the plan has elicited a chorus of objections, not just from neighbors but from worried activists. Worst-case scenarios, based on Gulf War studies, even claim that Atlanta could be hit by mustard and nerve gas if something went catastrophically wrong at the incinerator.

While that's an extreme example, the Army's own track record with other incinerators doesn't swell its neighbors with confidence. At the Army's eight other incinerators, there have been a total of 18 confirmed accidents over the years.

The most recent occurred two weeks ago at an incinerator in Tooele, Utah. VX nerve agent — which can lead to paralysis, convulsions and death — was detected by chemical sensors inside an observation corridor in the plant.

Officials shut down and evacuated the plant. The Army said there were no injuries, because no one was in the contaminated area at the time and only a small amount leaked into the plant.

That's little consolation to the people who watch the Army's chemical weapons incinerator program. "This is not a confidence builder," says Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group. "We've been saying for years that this incineration technology is fundamentally flawed and wonder when the Army will finally admit it."

The Tooele leak came after the plant had re-opened after being shut down for eight months so the Army could perform "corrective actions." Those repairs began after a July 2002 leak seriously injured a worker who was exposed to chemical agents. Apparently the corrective action hasn't worked, as the incinerator has been shut down three times since the plant reopened March 28. The Tooele incinerator, by the way, is the model for the Anniston one.

Mike Abrams, spokesman for the Anniston incinerator, says critics of the Utah accident "are making a mountain out of a molehill. The facility [in Utah] went back online [May 8] and it's not unusual to have a few minor, minor glitches. As a program, we're moving forward and we will continue the safety record that the Army has had since it began chemical demilitarization in the 1990s."

That's just what some people in Anniston are afraid of. Be sure, they heard about what happened in Utah.

Says Robert Downing, a commissioner of Calhoun County, whose seat is Anniston: "The problems that they've had and the problems that they've continually had in Tooele don't boost my confidence."

With little faith in the Army, Downing and the rest of the Calhoun County Commission have begged for protections and a kind of peace of mind. They've asked for gas masks and hoods for the 35,000 residents who live in the peak zone — the area so close to the plant that its people wouldn't have time to evacuate if there was an accident. They want schools and other places where people gather to be pressurized so that, with the flip of a switch, outside air won't be able to seep in.

Thanks to the intervention of Alabama's Sen. Richard Shelby and former Congressman and current Gov. Bob Riley, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and local emergency groups have begun distributing the masks, special air filters and — yep, you guessed it — duct tape and plastic.

Those measures "will give the citizens that live in proximity to the incinerator a greater protection than they've ever had," Downing says.