ANNISTON, Ala. - She never knows when the seizures will come. Perhaps in mid-sentence, as she is describing the warm, windy morning eight years ago when the first one struck, turning her lively face into a twisted, frozen mask. Perhaps as she talks about the toxic vapors that were leaking from the nearby Army depot that morning, vapors she's convinced caused the mysterious ailment. Perhaps if a whiff of something triggers a reaction to whatever haunts her system.
All Arametta Porter knows is that the seizures will come and that several times a day a tingling sensation will creep across her face, like worms crawling under the skin. Then the left side of her mouth will be stretched back to her ear. Her eyes will squeeze shut, and odd chirping sounds will come from her distorted lips. It will last anywhere from a few seconds to a few hours.
Like many in this eastern Alabama town, Porter, a 55-year-old retired biology teacher, lived for decades within a few miles of the Army depot, unaware it housed 2,254 tons of rockets, mines and other weapons loaded with deadly nerve agents like GB and VX and blistering mustard. Like many here, she wasn't too worried when the weapons' existence became common knowledge after the Cold War. After all, she reasoned, they had been stashed there since the 1960s without a problem.
Her attitude changed after the seizures began, and now, as the Army prepares to burn the stash - tomorrow is the targeted start date for the years-long project - Porter is among those growing increasingly angry and fearful. "I feel betrayed as an American citizen," said Porter, who questions the government's priorities as it searches for chemical weapons in Iraq. "If they went way over there looking for something they haven't found and wanted to protect the Iraqi people, why in the world aren't they protecting the people right here?"
For more than a decade the Army has been fighting local residents and environmentalists over how best to dispose of the Anniston weapons, which sit in concrete igloos deep within the 19-acre Anniston Army Depot. It is one of eight such storage sites in the continental United States and houses about 7 percent of the country's 31,500-pound stockpile of chemical weapons. The Army says incineration is the best way to destroy the obsolete weaponry and points to the burning of thousands of tons in the 1990s that had been stored on the Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. "It works. It's safe. I'd swear that the incinerator does not pose any risk to this community. In fact, we're reducing the risk to the community," said project spokesman Mike Abrams, insisting that leaving the weapons as is would be more dangerous than burning them because of the potential for leaks or terrorist attacks.
Opponents of incineration, though, say doing it in Anniston, where thousands of homes, businesses, schools and hospitals lie within 15 miles of the incinerator's 140-foot-high exhaust stack, is sheer lunacy. Were it not for the area's high percentage of poor and minorities, they allege, the military would not be pushing the project. "If this were Westchester or Nassau County, this would not be happening," said Craig Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, an advocates' group based in Kentucky that has sued to try to block the burning.
One thing both sides appear to agree on is that money and post-Sept. 11 terrorism fears have combined to push the incineration forward.
"We've invested more than $500 million to get to where we are. We're within days of beginning our work," Abrams said Friday when asked about alternatives such as neutralization, in which chemical agents are removed from projectiles and mixed with solutions to destroy their toxic qualities. Neutralization is favored by environmentalists and is used at some U.S. sites, but Abrams said it was unthinkable for Anniston, whose incinerator was completed in 2001. "It's a matter of what's been spent and a matter of what would have to be spent," Abrams said, referring to the time and cost of starting over.
Incineration has its supporters here. The Chamber of Commerce and the mayor back the plan, arguing it's best to get rid of the stuff as soon as possible. So do some living within the Pink Zone, the area closest to the depot. They include David Parker, head of a local group called Community Against Pollution and a litigant in an ongoing lawsuit alleging that the former Monsanto Co. - now Solutia Inc. - poisoned Anniston's environment and people by dumping PCBs into the ground at its local plant.
Parker sees no conflict in his support of incineration. "9/11 woke me up. 9/11 was for real. The stockpile is a major threat, and we're fearful of terrorists," he said.
Incineration opponents, though, appear to outnumber supporters, and they represent a cross-section of the population in this town of green hills and pastures 65 miles west of Birmingham. They see incineration not just as a potential danger but as an abuse of power by the Army, which has long held sway here. The town was home to the Fort McClellan Army Base until its closure in 1999. The depot, a separate facility, is the largest employer in Calhoun County, where Anniston is located. To speak out against anything the Army proposes is to risk being labeled unpatriotic, especially when President George W. Bush's war on terrorism is under way, activists say.
Even among the most vocal anti-incineration activists, there is often a link to the depot. Porter's father and brother worked there. Jeanette Champion, another Monsanto litigant and incineration foe, has a son-in-law working there.
"Nobody around here wants that incinerator to start up, but what can we do?" said Champion, who says her entire family, including her 9-month-old granddaughter, Trinity, have health problems from PCB contamination. "If we could, we'd leave, but nobody around here has that kind of money." She and her family live in the Pink Zone, as does Porter.
The Army has acknowledged that some GB agent leaked from the depot Aug. 1-3, 1995, but says wind direction and other conditions make it doubtful any affected Porter, who became ill Aug. 3 as she dragged her recycling bin to the sidewalk. As she did so, Porter says, a ferocious downdraft of wind nearly knocked her to the ground. The first seizure came minutes later.
Medical tests ruled out strokes and other ailments, and doctors have said her symptoms are consistent with exposure to GB. That's enough to convince Porter that firing up the incinerator is a mistake, despite the Army's issuing of protective hoods and other emergency equipment to Pink Zone residents. It has promised to begin burning at a slow pace and to burn only from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., until nearby schools have been equipped with pressurized rooms to serve as emergency shelters. The entire incineration is expected to last at least seven years.
"What kind of life are we going to have, sitting in our homes from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.? We should be able to live our lives the way we want," Porter said before another seizure - the third in 45 minutes - rendered her speechless.
Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.