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Dispatch from Toxic Town
Page 3

Three miles from the Solutia plant, the 25-square-mile Army depot is the site of Anniston's other big problem -- a massive stockpile of chemical weapons, among them rockets, projectiles, land mines, and mortars. Relics of the Cold War, the weapons were never meant to last this long, and they routinely leak in underground "igloos." The United States committed to getting rid of them when it ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997; to fulfill the treaty's terms, the Army has contracted Westinghouse to build and operate an incinerator. Inside a series of furnaces that can heat to more than 2,000 degrees, it will burn 2,200 tons of chemicals, including nerve agents sarin and VX, and the blistering agent mustard. Similar incinerators have been built to burn stockpiles on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific and also in Tooele, Utah, but those areas are isolated. More than 100,000 people live in Anniston and its surroundings.

No one in Anniston likes having 7 percent of the nation's chemical weapons sitting in their backyard, so most people initially went along with the Army's plan to incinerate them. (The Army says it will take about seven years and $1.8 billion to complete.) County Commissioner Eli Henderson, who worked twenty-five years at the depot and spent many of those years checking and managing weapons leaks, even printed and passed out bumper stickers that said: "Build it. Burn it. Forget it." But as January approaches, when the first batch of weapons is scheduled to be burned, residents -- Henderson included -- think the Army and the government haven't done enough to prepare Anniston for an accidental release of deadly poisons.

Trust eroded when it took a year for the Federal Emergency Management Agency to release more than $15 million the Army promised for safety measures. Local officials received the money so late, they are only now soliciting bids for "shelter-in-place" kits that will go to residents in the Pink Zone -- the areas closest to the incinerator. The kits contain what is essentially duct tape and plastic. In the event of a leak, people unable to evacuate are supposed to seal themselves up in a room. But a local television station showed that this seemingly simple task is nearly impossible in the few minutes it would take for the gas to reach homes. People are also confused about the protective hoods they're being issued: Should they carry them at all times? And they snicker at radio ads that ask "Do you know your zone?" with folksy voiceovers. Anniston is still waiting for $26 million to finish "over pressurizing" area schools, a process that makes them air tight.

Then, Army emails obtained by the Birmingham News this fall showed officials were planning a public-relations smear campaign to blame state and local officials for Anniston's lack of preparedness. That didn't go over too well. "We've been lied to so much, I wouldn't believe anything they told me," Henderson says.

Anniston made national news again in September, when Martin Luther King III joined an anti-incinerator rally of some 300 people, but with the facilities already built, burning seems inevitable. "We've moved down this road so far. We've got to do something," says Henderson. "We can't back up." Like most, he just wants to see it done right.

The Army's experts and others, including some from the Centers for Disease Control, insist that there is no chance a plume of gas will escape at all, much less travel 3 miles to the nearest houses. But as recently as July 15, while workers performed routine maintenance at the incinerator in Utah, some GB nerve agent escaped, contaminating one worker. (He was cleared to work the following day.)

In spite of all this, most people love their city. "I feel if it had the proper cleanup and they got rid of the nerve agent, it would be a wonderful place to live," says Shirley McCord. Indeed, the trees that Noble and Tyler planted more than a century ago still announce the entrance to Anniston, and on a sunny, 70-degree fall day, their full canopies shake slightly in the breeze, welcoming visitors to what appears to be -- and in many ways still is -- the quintessential American small town.










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Photos: Steve Gates

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council