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Army begins burning stash of chemical weapons in Alabama

08/10/03

Jay Reeves
Associated Press

Anniston, Ala.- Most people paid no attention yesterday when the Army fired up its first chemical weapons incinerator located near a residential area to destroy two rockets loaded with enough sarin nerve agent to wipe out a city.

Workers wearing protective gear loaded the 6-foot-long rocket onto a conveyor belt and sent it into a sealed room where it was drained of 1.2 gallons of the deadly chemical and chopped into eight pieces.

Those pieces were fed into an 1,100-degree furnace, producing slag that will be trucked to a hazardous waste landfill in western Alabama. The sarin was directed to a holding tank, to be held until there is enough to burn in a large batch, probably in late October.

Processing the first rocket took 36 minutes, slower than normal to make sure everything was working properly. "The operation was flawless," Army project manager Tim Garrett said.

Workers dismantled a second rocket before calling it a day yesterday.

Just outside the incinerator gate, Roger Johnson didn't bother to use his protective mask and safety gear while he cut grass at the county landfill.

"It's more dangerous going down I-20," the main highway through Anniston, Johnson said.

One protester showed up at the gate. Rufus Kinney of nearby Jacksonville said the Army should not have started before everyone had safety equipment.

"They'll blow up west Anniston one night when we least expect it," Kinney said.

A judge gave final clearance Friday for the $1 billion project, capping years of preparation and legal challenges.

The Army planned to de stroy as many as 10 of the M-55 rockets this weekend at the Anniston Army Depot and slowly increase to a rate of 40 rockets an hour by next year.

The Army's other incinerators are in more remote locations: Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean and in the desert near Tooele, Utah. Another incinerator is being tested at Pine Bluff Arsenal near Pine Bluff, Ark., a city of about 55,000, and is expected to begin burning chemical weapons late next year.

The military is still handing out protective hoods and other safety gear to many of the 35,000 people who live within nine miles of the Anniston incinerator.

Sarin, also known as "GB," is so deadly that a drop on the skin can kill.

The military contends incinerating the weapons is far safer than storing them. Incinerator spokesman Mike Abrams said the nerve agent VX and mustard gas also are stored at Anniston, but officials decided to begin with sarin rockets because nearly ^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^ 800 of them are leaking.

Nearly 700,000 munitions weighing 2,254 tons have been stored at the depot for more than 40 years in earth-covered, concrete-reinforced bunkers.


2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.
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