Some 35,000 residents of an Alabama town could soon get protective hoods just in case there’s an accident at a billion-dollar Army plant built to incinerate deadly nerve gases. It would be the first mass distribution of such gear to Americans, a prospect that’s refueled the debate over how best to dispose of America’s 30,000-ton stockpile of chemical weapons.
The first, and by far
largest, Army incinerator of nerve gases in the
United States is in the desert 15 miles south of Tooele, Utah.
Camoflauged bunkers store the gases before they are burned.
Photo - George Frey / AFP File
THE RESIDENTS of Anniston, Ala., got word this week of the protective hoods from Gov. Don Siegelman, who had sued to block the opening of the plant unless the hoods were issued. The plant will be burning 2,200 tons of mustard gas, VX and sarin, which is also known as GB.
A reluctant Federal Emergency Management Administration, which oversees preventive measures around Army incinerators, said it would pay for the hoods if certain conditions were met.
‘Even a small accident could be catastrophic.’ — MIKE BURNEY Anniston-area emergency planner
“We always have, and always will, have concerns with the use of hoods,” said FEMA spokesman John Czwartacki. “Strong demands for these particular protective measures from local and state leaders, who have the ultimate responsibility for the health and safety of their community, led us to explore options for their use in Alabama.”
The conditions, he said, are that Alabama submit “a detailed training and maintenance plan, including the name of a manufacturer who will stand behind the hoods.”
Another FEMA spokesman said the agency’s concerns stem from cases of untrained civilians being harmed and even killed when trying to use the hoods, which function like gas masks but are larger.
“If people aren’t properly trained in these,” said Michael Widomski, “there’s a false sense of security.”
‘COULD BE CATASTROPHIC’
While the military has destroyed aging nerve agents at incinerators in the Pacific and the Utah desert, the Anniston installation is the first to be located in a populated area.
Some 35,000 people live within the six-mile radius designated as a potential lethal area should there be an accidental release from the incinerator, which is at the Anniston Army Depot.
“Even a small accident could be catastrophic,” said Mike Burney, emergency management director for surrounding Calhoun County. While mustard gas is not a lethal agent, even minute doses of sarin and VX are. Detecting the latter agents is hard because they are odorless and colorless.
The Chemical Weapons Working Group, which is opposed to the burning of chemical agents, welcomed the hoods.
“If I live in the kill zone and the protection that I’ve got is either to evacuate or seal my house with plastic and duct tape, then would I like to have an extra layer of protection in the event of a release?” asked the group’s director, Craig Williams. “The answer is, yes.”
But the group thinks an even better approach is to retrofit incinerators so that they don’t burn the gases at all but instead use a newer process.
The group also cites new Environmental Protection Agency toxicity standards as showing VX gas is much more lethal than previously thought, in which case more Anniston residents could be exposed. Some 72,000 people live within nine miles of the incinerator, about 60 miles east of Birmingham.
Those new standards were raised by an Oregon health official evaluating an Army incinerator built in Oregon and awaiting final approval.
“It’s clear that there are going to be changes, perhaps far beyond the area we’ve been thinking about,” Tom Johnson told a local safety board last week.
For residents of Hermiston, Ore., which is just east of the Umatilla Chemical Depot, the changes could include expanding who gets protective shelter kits and home air filters to keep out any plumes.
BURN OR NEUTRALIZE?
Congress ordered the Pentagon to destroy stockpiles of chemical agents by 2007, and the military in 1982 decided that incineration was the best option.
Since then, technology has become available to neutralize the gases via a chemical process that involves no burning. Two of the newer plants, in Maryland and Indiana, use that process and the Army this week chose it for a site near Pueblo, Colo.
The Pueblo plant will use warm water to neutralize mustard agent. The less-toxic solution is then digested by bacteria and becomes a nontoxic substance.
The Chemical Weapons Working Group applauds the Army’s decision in that case, but says the Pentagon should go a step further and retrofit the Anniston incinerator, and ones in Tooele, Utah; Umatilla, Ore.; and Pine Bluff, Ark.
“Once you put it in the furnace it’s out of your control,” Williams said. “You’ve got to hope it all goes right.”
But Williams wasn’t hopeful either. “The military mentality does not lend itself to a change in direction,” he said, adding that construction companies involved in the $24 billion program also have a stake in protecting the incinerators.
A spokeswoman for the Army’s program said the issue is about the costs of retrofitting.
“Retrofitting an existing facility is not a feasible option,” said Marilyn Daughdrill of the Chemical Demilitarization Office. “These disposal facilities are extremely complex, with numerous systems for disassembling the munitions to segregate the agent and explosive components from the munitions bodies. Three separate furnace systems are used to treat the agent, explosive components and metal parts.”
“Once the facilities have been completely constructed,” she added, “it would be extraordinarily difficult and resource intensive to attempt to remove these equipment systems and fit another technology into the existing facility footprint.”
The next step for Anniston is a follow-up meeting between FEMA and local officials on April 9. The Army plans to begin test burns of nerve gas in September, and the Chemical Weapons Working Group said it might still seek legal action to block the incinerator from ever opening.
Sarin, VX, mustard gas
Thousands of tons of mustard agent at the Army's Pueblo Chemical Weapons Depot will be destroyed by water neutralization rather than incineration, Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., said Wednesday.
The decision, which was signed by Department of Defense Undersecretary E.C. Aldridge, came as a relief to many Pueblo residents, who preferred neutralization over incineration for environmental reasons.
In neutralization, there are no fumes or fire, and very few emissions. Instead, the agent is added to hot water, at which point it breaks down, then is biologically treated.
"It's that simple," said John Klomp, a Pueblo County commissioner. "The community here over the last several years has come together and studied all the technologies, and we all wanted this one. Nobody was divided. I think the Department of Defense heard us."
The facility won't be built for at least two more years, and the agent probably won't be neutralized until a year or two after that, said Marilyn Thompson, a spokeswoman with the depot.
On April 5, an Environmental Impact Statement will be released, triggering a 30-day public comment period. After that, Aldridge will sign what is called a Record of Decision, making the use of the technology official, Thompson said.
Allard also learned Wednesday security concerns are prompting Army officials to expedite the destruction of the mustard gas stockpile, said Sean Conway, Allard's spokesman.
"The fewer (terrorist) targets you have out there, the more you can concentrate your security resources on more important targets," Conway said. "Now that the method of destruction has been chosen, we can begin the process. The quicker we get the chemicals destroyed out there, the better."
In all, four methods of destruction were considered for the Pueblo Depot: two based on incineration and two based on a form of water neutralization.
In the past, the Department of Defense has chosen incineration over other technologies at other chemical weapon stockpiles across the country.
Two years ago, a chemical mustard stockpile was incinerated on Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific and a stockpile is now being destroyed in Tooele, Utah.
Similar incinerations are planned for the chemical weapon stockpiles in Anniston, Ala., Umatilla, Ore., and Pine Bluff, Ark.
Staff writer Dan Nowicki contributed to this report from Washington, D.C.
MUSTARD GAS AND THE PUEBLO DEPOT
Since World War II, 780,000 munitions containing 2,600 tons of chemical mustard agent have been stored in steel and concrete igloos on the depot grounds. In its native state, the agent looks like motor oil and smells a little like garlic. The gas released when the munitions are fired causes blistering of the skin and lungs.
The Pueblo depot is one of eight facilities nationwide with stored chemical weapons. The Army was ordered by Congress in 1985 to destroy the nation's stockpile, but concerns about how to do so without endangering nearby communities led to repeated delays.
There were four methods under consideration by the Department of Defense.
Two were methods of incineration, whereby the agent would be burned in a furnace at more than 1,000 degrees. In one case, the liquid mustard would have been sent straight to the furnace. In the other, it would have been frozen first, then sent to the furnace.
In the neutralization process, the mustard agent is mixed with water, at which point it breaks down before it is biologically treated. In one case, bacteria finishes the process, in the other heat and pressure are used.
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