ANNISTON, Alabama — There are few residents of Calhoun County's mountain ridges who do not know, to the tenth of a mile, how far they live from the smokestacks of the Army's towering new incinerator, which within a year is to begin destroying thousands of tons of the deadliest chemicals ever devised.
People here have been told that a shrill whoop-whoop is the most serious of several public-address siren tones, signaling a toxic leak of nerve or mustard gas. They have been shown how to operate government- issued alert radios designed to awaken them should a catastrophe occur. And the 35,000 people who live too close to the incinerator to be evacuated after an accident are being issued plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal their windows and doors should one occur. Local officials, leery of the duct-tape approach, are pressing the federal government to distribute 35,000 protective hoods, too.
For 40 years, people here have shared eastern Alabama's piedmont with 2,254 tons of lethal chemicals, packed in aging rockets and mortar rounds and sealed in reinforced concrete bunkers, known as igloos, at the Anniston Army Depot. Most have uneasily come to terms with the slim possibility of a chemical disaster as a trade-off for the military's strong economic presence in the area.
But now that the Army is getting ready to burn those chemicals, there is a heightened sense of concern among many of the 75,000 people who live within 10 miles of the depot. The $1 billion incinerator is to begin destroying the munitions and their contents next April, and many residents say they are profoundly worried about the safety of the procedure and the federal government's preparedness for an accident.
Anniston stores only 7 percent of the nation's chemical stockpile, but it is the most populous of the eight sites around the country where chemical weapons are being stored or destroyed. Aware that its actions here will profoundly affect the future of America's $14 billion disposal program, the Army is working hard to reassure the public that incineration is far safer than continued storage of the old weapons.
Government officials now acknowledge that more than 800 of the mortar rounds and M-55 rockets in the igloos have actually leaked minuscule amounts of deadly nerve gas. They have even distributed pictures of the aging shells to demonstrate an urgent need for disposal.
County officials agree with the Army's warnings that it is far more dangerous to leave the rusting weapons in their igloos than to burn them, but they are bitterly critical of the government's emergency preparations. They consider the duct-tape plan — reminiscent of the Israeli response to Iraqi missile attacks — entirely inadequate. So they are insisting that the federal government buy residents who are closest to the incinerator the 35,000 gas-filter hoods, which look like gas masks but fit over the neck as well as the head, at a cost of $10 million.
"If there's an accident at the incinerator, there would be far too much exposure if people are asked to tape up their homes in the eight minutes it would take for a gas plume to spread," said Michael A. Burney, director of the county's Emergency Management Agency. "We think these hoods would provide far better protection, and would allow people to evacuate in a timely and orderly fashion." The hoods would protect the wearer for six to eight hours.
The proposal, which has been submitted to the Army and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, raises the possibility that 35,000 adults and children would have to carry the hoods with them everywhere they go in the zones near the depot — to the grocery store, to the movies and to school — for at least six years and possibly longer, until the burning is complete.
Many residents disdain plans for either hoods or plastic sheeting, and say the weapons should be left in their igloos until a safer technology is developed. They cite an accident at a Utah weapons incinerator in May of last year that allowed a small amount of the nerve gas sarin — the type used by terrorists to kill 12 people on a Japanese subway in 1995 — to escape from the smokestack into the atmosphere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later determined that the leak had been too small to pose a danger, but the incident has undermined the Army's assurances about the safety of the procedure among an already nervous populace.
"That stuff has been safe underground for 40 years, but once you start moving it around, you know it's not safe anymore," said Elvin Hall Jr., an electrician who lives in one of the neighborhoods closest to the incinerator, four and a half miles away. "I just wish they'd leave it alone."
Army officials say they are disappointed that so much public emphasis has been placed on the risks of incineration when, they say, the dangers of continued storage of the depot's 661,000 chemical weapons are so much greater. Until a few years ago, the Army spent decades assuring the public that storage was quite safe, and in fact there has never been any serious exposure to stored chemical weapons. But now the Army is fully committed to its incineration program, and is talking freely about the growing danger of leaks of sarin, VX and mustard gas.
"Those M-55 rockets are extremely fragile munitions," said Lt. Col. Bruce E. Williams, commander of Anniston Chemical Activity, in an admission that would have been unthinkable during the cold war. "We think we can continue to store them safely, but you can't escape the fact that if there were a one-in-a-million earthquake, or lightning strike, or a 747 crashing on an igloo, the damage would dwarf the worst-case thing that could ever happen at the incinerator. The only real protection I can offer this community is to destroy this stockpile, and destroy it quickly."
Since Congress ordered the destruction of the chemical arsenal in 1985, the Army has incinerated 2,000 tons of chemicals on Johnston Atoll, near Hawaii. Another incinerator, at Tooele, Utah, has destroyed 5,100 tons since it began operation in 1996. Although there have been several instances of small internal spills and of workers' being exposed at the Tooele incinerator, no one has been seriously hurt, and the only leak to get outside was the one in May 2000. Timothy K. Garrett, the project manager for the Anniston incinerator, said the Tooele event had "opened our eyes" and provided valuable lessons for the local plant, which he said had added a $50 million charcoal filter to its smokestack that the other incinerators do not have.
Incinerators are also being built at chemical weapons arsenals in Pine Bluff, Ark., and Umatilla, Ore. Two other depots, in Aberdeen, Md., and Newport, Ind., will use another process, chemical neutralization, for disposal, and no method has yet been chosen for the remaining depots, in Pueblo, Colo., and Richmond, Ky.
The Army has invited local residents to tour the 19-acre incinerator before it begins operation in April, hoping to impress them with the plant's thick concrete walls and massive airlock doors, remote-control conveyer lines and elaborate mazes of filtered ductwork. But only a few hundred have made it out to the plant, which is not far from the sinister-looking igloos, and its effect on the community has been clear: Scores of houses around the depot are for sale, but no one is buying. Many houses and mobile homes sit empty. Calhoun was the only county in the northern half of Alabama to lose population in the most recent census, and its leaders have no doubt that the incinerator was the reason.
"We hadn't had a house for sale on my street in 23 years, and now four or five or them are for sale," said James Eli Henderson, a county commissioner from the depot area. "There's been no new industry to locate in our county in three years. I feel like the government should compensate us for all this economic damage, but all we're getting is plastic and duct tape."
Federal officials have not dismissed the request for gas hoods, but they seem amazed that so many people in the county do not consider the incinerator the best long-term investment for the region, permanently eliminating a dreadful weapon for the benefit of future generations.
"It's specious to argue that we need masks when the incinerator itself is going to destroy these weapons," Colonel Williams said. "Nobody appreciates more than I do how horrendous those weapons are, but that's why I'm so motivated to see them destroyed."
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company