Aug. 9, 2003: The burn begins for the chemical weapons stored in Anniston since 1963.
Dec. 24, 2008: Incinerator workers destroy the last of the VX nerve agent stockpile — what Garrett calls a nice Christmas present.
This week, another date will grace the project manager’s wall when the furnaces incinerate the last of Anniston’s more than 660,000 chemical weapons.
“I am relieved,” Garrett said of the much-anticipated event. “And I’d say I’m proud.”
For 48 years, the earthen bunkers at the Anniston Army Depot have acted as storage closets for nerve agent and mustard munitions. But over the past eight years, Army and Westinghouse contract workers have manned three furnaces on depot property to destroy the dangerous weapons.
On Sept. 8, storage workers transported the last projectiles containing mustard gas to the site.
“People have been here 24/7,” Army spokesman Mike Abrams said as he sat with Garrett in an administrative trailer on site.
More than 1,000 workers have stood watch at the incinerator as debilitating nerve agent and blistering mustard gas entered its chambers. Now only a few trays of mustard-filled projectiles remain.
It’s a reality many across the region can hardly believe, even as they anticipate the stockpile’s disappearance. For Sherri Sumners, the imminent end of the stockpile means it’s time to burn something else.
Sumners, the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce president, recalled how “back in the early, early days” scientists tested nerve agent and its remedies on goats.
“When the burn first started, we said we’d have a symbolic goat roast when it was all done,” she recalled. “Well, I have been looking on the Internet for goats.
“It’s a happy day for the county.”
Calhoun County Commission Chairman Eli Henderson said it seems like just yesterday when he was a depot worker tasked with finding leaky nerve agent in the earthen bunkers — known around the depot as “igloos.”
Henderson and his fellow workers had to find old and problematic nerve agent rockets, remove them from their igloos, fortify their casings and store them in specially marked bunkers.
“There could have been a bad accident or incident … back then,” he said. “I think it’s tremendous what the workforce out there has accomplished.”
“Flawless” is a word many officials at the incinerator and across Calhoun and Talladega counties have used to describe the eight-year burn. Officials remember the fear, anxiety and emotion in the region when the burn began. They also remember getting the attention of news media from around the state, nation and globe.
Forty-three interviews in the first eight days of the furnaces’ initial operation is what Sumners remembers.
“So where are they after the safe destruction of the stockpile is nearly complete?” she asked.
Safety is the word
Safety is the buzzword for people like Garrett and Abrams. It’s what they call their No. 1 priority and what makes them proudest now at the end.
In the beginning, Garrett fretted over the abundance of safety concerns from the community residents.
“I just didn’t want anyone to be worried about this,” he said. “We made constant efforts to speak to anyone and everyone about what we were doing.”
Besides storing, transporting, monitoring and destroying chemical weapons, workers also participated in emergency test exercises on a monthly basis. They practiced everything from fire drills to “man down” emergencies, scenarios in which they had to extract injured or sick workers from the chemical-limited area.
This past Friday as incinerator employee Frances Dawson issued respirator masks in a trailer at the front of the site, an alarm signaling a test emergency sounded.
Abrams said those safety tests will now happen weekly.
“In some ways the challenge will be more difficult,” he said. “We’ll have to focus on safety and dismantling.”
Report, reuse, recycle
Federal law requires Garrett and his team to decontaminate, dismantle and oversee the razing of the facilities that housed chemical agents. About 900 workers will stay on for that task, which Garrett estimates will take more than two years.
He swept his hand through the air as he gestured at the steel and concrete structures, pipes and warehouses that have to go as he led a tour through the site.
“That’s where the action is,” he said.
Usually an animated person, Garrett falls quiet when asked whether he thinks the furnaces should be destroyed after the weapons.
Rather than giving his opinion, he mentions a 2010 study commissioned by the office of U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby.
Both Sumners and Henderson mentioned that study, too. In the report, Congress explored options to reuse the incinerator. But officials hasten to explain there’s no chance more chemical weapons will be destroyed there. But there are opportunities to destroy conventional munitions, medical waste or to expand other depot missions to the site, officials said.
That kind of reuse will require legislative approval, but Henderson doesn’t think that should stand in the way.
“No it doesn’t … you can change the law,” he said.
New jobs for ‘900 to 1,000 heroes’
Sumners said Congress’ full report is due this week — right in time for the anticipated destruction of the final 0.01 percent of mustard munitions.
Sumners also expects a new job search website to go online this week. Paid for by a $500,000 federal grant, the website is part of the chamber’s efforts to keep the incinerator’s 1,000 highly trained workers in the region.
“It’s the kind of robust job search I have wanted the chamber to have for a long time,” she said.
Garrett and Abrams emphasized many of the workers will stick around for at least a couple of years. Garrett said he hopes to help his team members find work after Anniston ends its chemical demilitarization program.
He said he owes them that for the safe and meticulous work they’ve done.
“In many ways, we work with 900 to 1,000 heroes,” Abrams said.
‘Finish up … and feed the bullets’
At least one employee at the incinerator plans to move on to Pueblo, Colo., or Bluegrass, Ky., to help destroy chemical weapons stored there.
“I always follow the work, and I’ll continue on when done with this one,” said David Apodaca, a Westinghouse project manager.
Now, he works in the control room at the incinerator. It’s a room filled with computer screens, surveillance video and people who keep watchful eyes on the burning process.
Before Anniston, Apodaca helped to close the chemical weapons programs on Johnston Island in the South Pacific Ocean and in Albania.
The native Texan strolled up and down the rows of computers — quiet on this Friday before the mission’s end — as he easily recited the function of each piece of hardware.
“Despite knowing the end is always coming, it’s always a surprise,” he said. “We just got to finish up and feed the last few bullets.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.