As chemicals incinerated, emotions also cook

Army rids itself of leftover weapons of mass destruction, distributing plastic sheeting to Alabamans nearby.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

What the Army's got buried in the nooks of Alabama's sand hills reads like a twisted tyrant's Christmas wish list: Nearly a million pounds of sarin gas, 1.5 million pounds of VX gas, and about 2 million pounds of mustard gas.

This is the "pink zone," a wooded area around the Anniston Army Depot, home to the caustic leftovers of America's weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program. Brought here discreetly in the 1960s, Anniston's stash is about to be incinerated as the US rushes to honor an agreement to neutralize 23,415 tons of rockets and barrels by 2007.

For many in this populous region an hour east of Birmingham, it's high time the Army got rid of chemicals that have been the stuff of legend for 40 years. The overarching sentiment is one of support, an awareness that the Army is trying to fulfill its promise and put toxic weapons to bed as quietly and safely as it can. But some here speak bitterly of a strange irony: Even as the US searches out WMD around the world, they say, it's rarely put so many of its own people at risk.

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Now, as a federal judge hears a final injunction request Friday from an environmental group trying to keep the incinerator from starting up, unease besets many, from the commissary to Wellborn Middle School, where a pressurized cafeteria is expected to guard children from any accidental chemical release. In court Friday, critics will argue that the Army has not done enough to protect the area's infirm, and has broken protocols on using the safest technology.

Indeed, as the people of Calhoun County become the first US civilians to be handed gas masks and plastic sheeting, a cauldron of emotions has heated up - and simmered - around Anniston's "toxic burden."

"I've lived in fear for a long time," says County Commissioner J.D. Hess, in line Wednesday for a chemical kit. "But it's 100 times better to finally get rid of this stuff."

Until the 1990s, when plans for the incinerator came to light, many here didn't know about the chemical-weapons stash. "It's not something that people include in the Chamber of Commerce literature" says Suzanne Marshall, a social historian who's studied the incinerator's effect here.

But rumors are plentiful, fanciful - whispers of "killer orchards" where locals fear to tread - and even profitable, with the local restaurant, Area 51 Rumors Grill.

Milton Ford, for one, isn't picking up gas masks - though he can see the incinerator from his barber shop. On his wall are autographed pictures of three-star generals who've visited - for haircuts and to assure him of his safety. Mr. Ford believes them 100 percent: "They say they're ready to burn, so I believe they're ready to burn."

Most here support the incinerator - both for destroying the toxins and for bringing jobs. But there's a palpable disappointment for a town that has been the unwitting stage for America's toxic weapons. Many acknowledge that the Army shared an "innocence" over the dangers of chemicals that were still new and strange when the program was founded. Still, critics say, a lack of forthrightness has tainted the project, shaking confidence in its safety. They argue that the Army has not adequately protected residents - or even considered safer options like underwater neutralization, which is in use at a Maryland site.

"The question [in Anniston] is whether the Army is putting people at risk unnecessarily," says Richard Futrell, a sociology professor at Eastern Kentucky University.

The Army insists that incineration is safe, and points to relative smooth sailing in its destruction of 16 million pounds of chemical weapons in Utah and Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific. But both those locations are remote and sparsely settled: The plume from Johnston Atoll, for instance, rarely blew over populated areas. That's not the case here, where 150,000 residents nestle into the piney sand hills.

Still, Army officials are confident. "We have never hurt anyone," says Mike Abrams, an Anniston Army Depot spokesman - and he doesn't anticipate Erin Brockovich riding into Anniston any time soon. The new high-heat burner will give off no more toxins to those in the pink zone than smoking a pack of cigarettes a year, according to an Army report. And the highest priority, Abrams insists and critics agree, is to neutralize chemicals before rockets and barrels crumble more: There have already been 881 rocket "leakers." Over the past 13 years, the Army spent $550 million on the plan - from sirens to security plans for schools - which he says would be "criminal" to waste.

Critics worry not just about long-term exposure, but accidents - which, they say, seem plausible and perilous here. Even Abrams admits rare "oopses" - though no serious ones. But fear of that possibility - or at least awareness of it - is clear at a ware-house on Ft. McClellan, where officials are passing out emergency kits with protective hoods and sealing tape. Lines here have grown - and grown. "You just don't know if there's going to be an accident," says Gerald Nowland, a local crane operator picking up a kit with his son.

Ronnie, a potato-chip distributor who lives close enough to the depot fence that he can throw a rock over it, picked up three kits last week and taught his family to use them. He figures they'd survive for three hours in a spill. Calculations like those are taking their toll. "What we want is compensation for all this, but that's just not happening," he says. His concern is as much with jobs as with safety. "I went looking for a job over there and they were just hiring people from out of state," he says bitterly.

But across the street at Langley's Curb Mart - where browsers can find everything from pickled quails' eggs to John Hersey novels - owner Diane Oliver, like much of Anniston, has made peace with the WMD stash: "We've lived with chemicals all our life. What are you going to do?" Most, like Ms. Oliver, expect the burn to go smoothly. To many, indeed, the plumes are no worse than exhaust from a pickup cruising by this week, with a bumper sticker that spoke for many: "Build it, burn it, forget it."

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