ANNISTON, AL- The Army destroyed several hundred gallons of sarin nerve agents Sunday in its first large-scale incineration of lethal chemicals near a populated area.
Sarin, also known as GB, is a nerve agent so deadly that a drop on the skin can kill. The chemical was drained from 900 Cold-War era rockets that have been chopped up and burned since a controversial $1 billion incinerator went into operation Aug. 9.
People in and around this town 95 miles west of Atlanta kept county-issued gas masks at the ready Sunday.
"I know that all the equipment they have is good, but equipment does fail," said Jody Poppell, a 54-year-old sporting goods salesman at Wal-Mart.
"There's always a chance that something could go wrong."
Emergency planners say some 35,000 people live within nine miles of the incinerator.
The incinerator is key to the Army's plan to destroy aging chemical weapons. The Army says burning chemical weapons is safer than leaving them alone at the Anniston Army Depot, where government employees have found 882 leaks since 1982.
Most leaks were inside rockets or on bunker floors and none jeopardized public health, Army spokesman Mike Abrams said.
"We will employ the safest techniques possible to destroy chemical weapons where they are stored," he said. "There is absolutely no reason for anyone to alter their lifestyle as we destroy either the rockets or the agents."
Forty to 42 gallons of nerve agent residue already have been incinerated at the Anniston Army Depot, but always in small amounts. Sunday's burning, the first large-scale destruction of sarin, completes the destruction of the rockets at the Army's newest weapons incinerator.
The Army was expected to burn about 800 gallons of sarin by dawn today.
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.
Sensors at the Anniston incinerator would alert authorities to any leak, but some people in eastern Alabama still have the jitters.
As a precaution, the Calhoun County government distributed gas masks, air purifiers, plastic sheets and duct tape to people who live near the incinerator.
Crews are working in schools and day care facilities to make some large rooms, such as gyms, airtight. They also are installing air filters and other equipment to create a safe haven should something go awry.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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