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14 September 1998
Source: AP via Tampa Bay Online. Thanks to A.

9/14/98 -- 1:23 AM

Some in Alabama town fear new risks as Army destroys chemical

          ANNISTON, Ala. (AP) - Alice Harper has learned to live with the fact that death lies buried just a short drive away, beneath the meandering foothills of northeast Alabama.

          For three decades, the Army has stored 2,254 tons of mustard gas, VX nerve gas and GB nerve gas in concrete bunkers underneath the Anniston Army Depot.

          Now the Army wants to dig it all out.

          Faced with a congressional deadline for eliminating the nation's aging chemical weapons stockpile by 2004, the Army says the safest way to         destroy its munitions at Anniston is in the incinerator being built on an isolated part of the depot.

          ``I'm scared of all of it, but we're just common people,'' Mrs.Harper said. ``Nobody listens to us. We don't matter.''

          The Army denies that anyone is being forgotten or ignored. But its $1 billion blueprint for destroying the lethal stockpile has raised concerns about the plan's safety.

          A lawsuit filed this month claims state regulators violated their own rules in approving a permit for the facility and miscalculated the potential risk of the operation.

          In addition, the state is undertaking a $3 million study to assess 0how many of the 250,000 people who live within 30 miles of the site could be evacuated in the event of a major accident. At least 80,000 people might not get out in time, according to civil defense officials.

          Two of those are Mrs. Harper and her husband, Gary.

          ``People all over here are wanting to sell their homes, get out of here,'' said Gary Harper, 45, whose house and gas station/tanning salon business are only a few minutes from the weapons complex - one of eight U.S. storage sites for the nation's cache of chemical agents.

          The design of the 2,700-degree incinerator is based on two that already have safely destroyed more than 3,600 tons of chemical agents stored in Tooele, Utah, and Johnston Island in the South Pacific since 1993, officials say.

          Building and operating the four-furnace incinerator will cost $575 million. The remaining $425 million of the $1 billion is for military equipment,           transportation and personnel.

          The Army says at least 99 percent of what comes out of the incinerator will be harmless carbon dioxide and water vapor, along with even smaller, non-hazardous amounts of hydrochloric acid, heavy metals and oxides of nitrogen and sulfur. Powerdy residue removed from air cleaners will be taken to a hazardous waste dump.

          ``You driving here will do more damage to the environment than the incinerator will,'' said Tim Garrett, deputy site project manager for the Army.

          Yet opponents distrust military assurances. The Coosa River Basin Initiative Inc., based in neighboring Georgia, filed suit this month challenging the incinerator permit granted by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management. The state agency had reviewed the issue for more than seven years.

          ``They don't know what will come out of the stacks until it comes out,'' said Beth Fraser, executive director of the Coosa River group.

          Breathing as little as 40 milligrams of GB gas - also known as sarin - per minute in a cubic foot of air is lethal, according to a new study.

          Clark Bruner, a spokesman for the Alabama environmental agency, said the permit allows the release of minute amounts of nerve agents at levels approved by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Those limits mandate that the disposal process can be blamed for no more than one death in every 100,000 people, Bruner said.

          The $3 million risk study, being performed for the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, will help determine just how safely people could be evacuated in the case of what agency director Lee Helms calls a ``worst-case scenario'' - the explosion of even one of the 155 buried igloos in which weapons are stored.

          Like many Anniston residents, Jim Norton trusts the Army with his life. A former security worker at the facility, Norton once came within 100 feet of a ``leaker,'' one of the aging artillery shells or rockets that occasionally springs a leak at the depot.

          ``I'm not worried,'' he said. ``I sleep well at night.''

          Copyright 1998 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.