Despite protests, Army begins to incinerate chemical weapons

Some Alabamians fearful

officials promise safety

August 10, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

ANNISTON, Ala. - With the push of a button and a spurt of steam yesterday, the Army began burning the millions of pounds of chemical weapons stored here, after years of legal wrangling and despite outcries from worried residents.

The first M-55 rocket, after it was drained of the deadly nerve agent sarin, was chopped into eight pieces and roasted in a 1,100-degree furnace, turning a Cold War relic into a pile of ash.

"This is absolutely a gorgeous day," said Michael B. Abrams, a spokesman for the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility. "We're beginning the end of chemical weapons in Anniston."

Many residents were less enthusiastic. For six years, since construction began on a giant, $1 billion weapons incinerator, an alliance of local and national environmental groups has fought to block its use.

"We're very disappointed today," said David Christian, an Anniston architect who led protests. "They're putting poisons in the air, and we may not know for years what the effects will be."

Army officials have said the process is completely safe, but just to make sure, Alabama officials issued protective hoods to residents living near the incinerator, which made many people feel worse.

Environmental groups in many places have been pressing the Army to find other ways to neutralize its stockpile of Cold War weapons of mass destruction. More than 660,000 weapons, packed with chemicals such as VX gas, mustard gas and sarin, are stored here in concrete bunkers known as igloos.

The environment groups said the Anniston area, in the Interstate 20 corridor between Atlanta and Birmingham, was too heavily populated for an incinerator. About 250,000 people live within 30 miles of the plant, many more than in the other places where the Army has burned chemical weapons, such as Tooele, Utah, and Johnston Atoll near Hawaii.

The Army said it was safer to burn the aging, corroding weapons than to keep them at the Anniston Army Depot, where nearly 700,000 munitions weighing 2,254 tons have been stored for more than 40 years. Hundreds of mortar rounds and M-55 rockets in the igloos are leaking, Army officials said.

In a last effort to prevent the burning, protesters appealed to a federal judge in Washington to issue an injunction, saying that safety plans had not been completed. But Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson ruled that there was no imminent harm and that the plant could begin destroying the weapons.

Yesterday morning, Army officials gathered under a tent near the incinerator to announce that the first rocket had been destroyed. No protesters were in sight; several said they did not have enough notice to get organized.

"That rocket is now history," Abrams said. "This community is now one rocket safer."

He then added that there were tens of thousands of rockets to go. The Army planned to destroy as many 10 rockets this weekend at Anniston and gradually increase to a rate of 40 rockets an hour by next year.

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