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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 / August 8, 2003


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.

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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.

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.