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American Forces Press Service

Chemical Weapons Incineration Progressing in Alabama

By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service

ANNISTON, Ala., Aug. 9, 2005 Local angst over the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility here has eased somewhat as the burning of some 2,254 tons of chemical agent proceeds safely.

Since the first sarin nerve agent-filled M55 rocket was safely destroyed two years ago, the facility has processed about 80 percent of the munitions containing sarin housed at the facility, said Mike Abrams, public affairs officer for the Anniston Chemical Activity and Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility.

Sarin nerve agent, or GB, makes up about 19 percent of the total agent Anniston is charged with processing. The M55 rockets that were first destroyed measured 78 inches, weighed 57 pounds and contained nearly one and a half gallons of nerve agent each.

Of the other agents stored in earth-covered "igloos" at the facility, VX nerve agent made up 37 percent, and mustard agent made up 44 percent.

To date, the facility, operated by Westinghouse Anniston, a subsidiary of Washington Demilitarization Company, has destroyed nearly all of the GB-filled munitions.

Only 105 mm artillery shells are still to be destroyed. On July 23, the facility began processing those shells, which measure 15 inches long, weigh 32 pounds and contain roughly a fifth of a gallon of GB nerve agent.

Abrams explained that the agency doesn't release numbers of specific munitions for security reasons. However, he said, destruction of the 105 mm shells is expected to continue through the end of 2005.

The 105 mm shells are in stark contrast to the 8-inch projectiles the facility finished processing on July 17. The 8-inch-diameter projectiles were 35 inches long, weighed 198 pounds and contained nearly two gallons of GB each.

The smaller size of the 105 mm shells will speed the process, Abrams said. However, he added, if the agent in the weapon has gelled, it cannot simply be drained out -- and that slows the process.

When all of the GB weapons have been processed, there will be a planned interruption in the operation schedule to reconfigure the incinerator for VX weapons. The final phase of operations here will demilitarize the weapons containing mustard agent.

When the entire stockpile has been processed, the plant will be dismantled and decontaminated, Abrams said.

"Even though we've only destroyed 15.5 percent of the agent stockpile here, ... we are well on our way to seeing the completion of the disposal program in Anniston in the year 2010," Abrams said. "That is dependent on continuing success, and that means a daily focus on safety, not just periodic. (And) it means that we need the Defense Department and Congress to continue to fund us."

Storage of chemical weapons on the Anniston Army Depot began in 1961. As the weapons began to age, they became less stable.

During the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in Paris, 130 countries agreed to terms regarding the treatment of chemical weapons. The resulting treaty stated that each party would control its stockpile of existing weapons and never use or prepare to use such weapons for military purposes, according to the U.S. Chemical Weapons Convention Web site.

Additionally, each party agreeing to the terms of the treaty would take measures to destroy stockpiles of chemical weapons at home and abroad, as well as any facilities used to manufacture such weapons.

The convention set a deadline of 2007 for complete compliance. Abrams said that both Russia and the U.S. will have difficulty meeting that deadline. Neither, however, wants to invoke the extension that would give countries until 2012 to complete the task.

How the U.S. will finish on time without invoking the extension is not clear, as there are other chemical weapons demilitarization locations in the country that have not yet been brought on line, Abrams said.

ANAD and the ANCDF will not rush things, because safety is the bottom line, Abrams said. The facility has collected a "safe work hour" total of more than 7.2 million hours. That means that there were no incidents that caused a lost day of work or a hospital visit in that amount of time.

"My boss refuses to impose a hard, fast goal ... on the systems contractor," Abrams said. "He insists that if the operators inside this plant working with these very dangerous weapons have a requirement to meet that that could lead to a ... careless mistake.

"Instead, he insists that we focus on safety. Everything we do is done 'safety first.'"

As an example of that philosophy, a July 28 lightning strike near the facility has made the ANCDF pause its schedule to evaluate whether there was any effect to the equipment. Abrams said he expects the plant to resume processing 105 mm artillery shells soon.

That safety culture is for the benefit of all involved in incinerating part of the country's aging stockpile and the surrounding community.

"Now we've had almost two years of very successful operations, and during these two years with positive media reports, without any major problem a the site ... all of our success has provided the community with the reassurance that we can do our work, we can do it safely, and our ultimate goal of safely destroying all of the weapons can be realized."

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