ANNISTON, Alabama -- The U.S. army yesterday fired up its first chemical weapons incinerator near a residential area and destroyed a Cold War-era rocket loaded with enough sarin nerve gas to wipe out a city.
Just outside the incinerator gate, Roger Johnson was not wearing 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 near Anniston, Johnson said.
One protester was 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.
Workers wearing protective gear loaded an M-55 rocket onto a conveyor belt and sent it into a sealed room, where it was drained of the nerve agent and chopped into eight pieces.
Those pieces were then fed into a 694-degree C furnace for destruction. The slag will be trucked to a hazardous waste landfill in the western Alabama town of Emelle.
The work capped years of preparation for the army, which had to fight off legal challenges from opponents who argue the process isn't safe. A judge on Friday gave final clearance for the $1-billion US project to move ahead.
The army planned to destroy as many as 10 rockets this weekend and slowly increase to a rate of 40 rockets an hour by next year.
The military is still handing out protective hoods and other safety gear to many of the 35,000 people who live within 15 km of the incinerator, and some schools in the area have yet to be outfitted with special ventilation equipment designed to keep out lethal fumes during an accident.
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.
Sarin, also known as "GB," is so deadly that a drop on the skin can kill. VX is much worse.
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.Posted by tstubbs at August 10, 2003 06:42 PM | Trackback