Not Iraq, but Anniston, Ala.
By CHUCK MURPHY, Times Staff Writer
ANNISTON, Ala. -- They told William Hutchings he would have his building by now.
But when Hutchings and the 550 students, teachers and staff in his school practice what to do if there is an explosion at the Army depot 5 miles away, they pile into a converted music room, not a state-of-the-art shelter.
As Hutchings talks, he paces in the lot where his shelter is supposed to be, behind C.E. Hanna school in Hobson City, just southwest of Anniston.
On the other side of the hill, the Army has stored enough nerve agent and mustard to kill or incapacitate millions. The rockets, artillery shells and mortar rounds are pointed toward the sky, awaiting destruction.
It has been that way for 40 years. But as the United States prepares to attack Iraq, partly over Saddam Hussein's failure to rid his nation of chemical weapons, Anniston is a vivid reminder that the weapons of mass destruction from the 20th century were a lot easier to make than they are to destroy.
Though the United States is required by international treaty to be rid of chemical weapons by 2007, nearly 75 percent of the nation's now-banned arms still exist. It amounts to a nationwide stockpile of 23,415 tons of liquid sarin nerve agent, blister-causing mustard agent, a deadly nerve liquid called VX and variants.
That's 46,830,000 pounds of chemicals. A teaspoon of any of them is enough to kill or maim.
Most of it is stored at eight sites around the country, still in the munitions into which it was loaded at the factory in the 1940s and '50s. It was never used in battle, only in practice. There are hundreds of other "nonstockpile" sites, as the Army refers to them, around the country. Several are in Florida, including the Tampa Bay area.
In Anniston, the more than 600,000 munitions that arrived in trains and trucks in the 1960s have long been the subject of whispers in the town of 24,276 in a county of 112,249. But as the date for their incineration approached last month, the whispers turned to debate.
Today, the residents of Calhoun County agree they want the weapons gone. But they divide sharply over how -- and how quickly -- the destruction should occur.
On one side are those who want the weapons to go away fast -- at least as soon as the Army prepares schools and homes just in case of an accident at the new incinerator at the depot.
On the other are those who have been fighting incineration for a decade. They hope the Army will be forced to scrap its burning plans in favor of what they believe is a safer process of chemical "neutralization" followed by disposal.
'A certain number of casualties'
Brenda Lindell needs pecans for her fruit salad. Once she gets them from her garage she returns to a topic she is passionate about: organophosphates.
"Even the CDC said they didn't know anything about the effects of low-dose, long-term exposure," Lindell said. "Well, if they don't know, then don't make us the guinea pigs!"
Lindell, 50, hardly matches the stereotype of a tree-hugging environmentalist. She is first and foremost a self-described homemaker who first heard about plans to burn the chemical weapons in 1991.
Even then, she fought the urge to battle the Army, preferring to move from Anniston rather than fight.
But she, her husband and their three kids stayed put. And over time, the Army's plans to burn Anniston's 2,254 tons of chemical agent in a big incinerator near town have become her passion.
"When the Army is given a mission, a certain number of casualties is acceptable to them, and they put on blinders and just go," Lindell said. "That's acceptable on a battlefield in war. But this is not a battlefield, and we're not supposed to be at war with our own government."
Over the protest of Lindell and other groups locally and across the country, Westinghouse Anniston (the Army's contractor) built the incinerator and got a permit to operate it.
It's the same technology that has been used in Tooele, Utah, and on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific. The Army said the destruction of 9,634 tons of chemicals in those two incinerators went relatively smoothly, with no fatal accidents and only minor glitches.
But those incinerators are, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere, not in the midst of more than 100,000 people like the one in Anniston.
And as Lindell and others are quick to point out, it's too soon to tell whether there will be any long-term damage to people or animals from trace amounts of the organophosphates -- the killers in the nerve agents -- that may have been released during those burns.
The Army is required to insure that incineration produces an exhaust that is 99.9999 percent free of harmful chemicals.
But the other 0.0001 could contain small amounts of toxic dioxins, maybe some heavy metals and, if you believe the dissenters, a little occasional nerve agent.
The Army points to a study from test burns at the Johnston Atoll. It showed that the maximum possible public exposure from cancer-causing agents coming out of the smokestack would be the equivalent of smoking 1.7 to 17 cigarettes per year.
"When you look at the working population on Johnston Island, we have not found any instances of workers having long-term health effects," said Army spokesman Mike Abrams.
The opponents don't buy it.
Craig Williams is one of those opponents. Williams, who heads a consortium of incineration opponent organizations called the Chemical Weapons Working Group, complains that the test burn data doesn't take into account the potential burps and hiccups that occur when an incinerator is really up and running. The data also doesn't take into account the long-term exposure to even low doses of those chemicals if incineration goes on for eight to 12 years.
The Johnston Island incineration lasted 10 years, but was usually conducted so that the plume from the incinerator blew out over the ocean, not toward the island's housing.
And finally, Williams charges, the Army hasn't accounted for Anniston's uniquely polluted population. The town is already among the most troubled in America. An abandoned factory on one side of town is awash in PCBs, and some residents already test positive for exposure to the cancer-causing agent.
"If you know that you've got a community already overburdened with toxic chemicals, it is unconscionable to look at that (data) in a vacuum and declare that these are safe levels," Williams said.
Eli and the gorilla
A decade ago, James "Eli" Henderson believed in the Army.
He spent 25 years working as a civilian at the Anniston depot. For 10 of those years, he checked the chemical weapons every day for "leakers."
But after initially supporting the idea of a quick incineration of the depot's chemical munitions, Henderson had a change of heart.
"We discovered that the VX (nerve agent) is 10 times more deadly than they told us and that the GB (sarin) is five times more deadly," Henderson said. "And we couldn't get any help."
"I just began to raise hell," Henderson said.
It's not that he opposes incineration, though he says Lindell and her supporters "just might be right." Instead, he wants to make sure the county's residents are protected just in case the Army's safeguards fail.
But in January, with the February start of burning looming on the calendar, little of the promised protection had arrived, with the exception of a few "Shelter In Place" kits (a roll of duct tape, a pair of scissors and plastic sheeting to keep the chemicals out of your house).
So Henderson and others on the commission turned to their senior U.S. senator, Richard Shelby.
After hearings last year, Shelby wrote to Army Secretary Thomas White to complain about "the obvious safety shortfalls."
Shelby, a Republican, got immediate attention.
"He was our 800-pound gorilla," Henderson said.
Though the Army maintains that it is nearly impossible for a plume of nerve or mustard gas to travel off the confines of the depot, Army officials declared that they would not begin burning until after Shelby and the County Commission were satisfied that safety plans were in place.
Almost immediately, FEMA gave the county $14-million to buy 20,000 chemical protection hoods for adults and another 2,000 for children and 750 for babies (all at $225 each) living in the "pink zone" closest to the incinerator.
Another 40,000 shelter-in-place kits were purchased at $22.34 each, despite complaints that duct tape and plastic would be no match for sarin or VX if a cloud moves off base. Residents in the pink zone also will get $365 recirculating air filters to put in one room of their homes, where they would wait out the crisis if it comes.
All of it will be distributed soon. And Shelby might not be done yet.
On Friday, Shelby's spokesperson said he was considering asking the Army to perform a study of the cost and benefits of switching the incinerator over to neutralization technology. That would allow the chemicals to be mixed, like baking soda with vinegar, to make the poison inert. It could then be diluted and disposed of. The Army is planning to use that technology at four other stockpile sites.
The Army's new director of the chemical demilitarization program told the Anniston Star recently that the agency would be willing to consider alternatives if they furthered the goal of safely disposing of the stockpile.
Still waiting at C.E. Hanna
In the meantime, FEMA has finished paying for a new state-of-the-art Calhoun County emergency management bunker in Jacksonville, 12 miles north of Anniston. There are 106 special sirens scattered around the county to blast a warning if the chemicals start to drift.
FEMA also has put special pressurization engines in the schools closest to the incinerator, so the air pressure in a large room at each school could be increased in the event of a chemical release so that no agent could get inside.
But while those schools are protected, Hutchings is still waiting.
On Thursday, Janet Shelby of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that C.E. Hanna School is still slated to get a new metal building with a pressurization engine.
"It will be done by October," Shelby said.
That's when the Army is hoping to start the burning 5 miles away. And that's when Army workers will reach into the "igloos" where the weapons are stored and begin withdrawing pallets of rockets and shells stacked together for 40 years.
In the worst case, one of the 77,000 M-55 rockets filled with sarin or VX would tip over, hit the ground and launch back into the igloo, igniting several thousand others and sending a cloud of deadly sarin toward the sky and out past the fence.
The sirens would go off and the fourth- and fifth-graders at C.E. Hanna would run to their new shelter before Hutchings, 63, turned on the pressurization machine.
But, first, he needs his building. And he is tired of waiting.
"You've got some people fighting over money like blind dogs in a meat house," Hutchings said. "But they're not doing anything for the common people."
The home shelter kits provided to protect Anniston, Ala. residents from exposure to chemical nerve agents contain items that could be found at most hardware stores
1. A 10' X 25' roll of plastic sheeting
2. A roll of duct tape
3. A pair of scissors
4. A video explaining how to trim the plastic to fit windows and doors
The "Shelter in Place" kit also contains written instructions residents are to follow if they hear the chemical warning siren. Here they are:
1. Move inside immediately
2. Close all windows and doors
3. Turn off all ventilation systems
4. Go into and seal a room
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111
From the Times wire desk
From the AP