The people in the control room at the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility didn’t speak. Local officials, Army leaders and incinerator workers stood still as they watched computer monitors showing the last batch of Anniston’s chemical weapons come out of the oven agent-free.
It was over. All of the 661,529 chemical weapons were gone at 3 p.m. Thursday with the incineration of those final mustard-filled projectiles.
Still, the control room was quiet. People glanced at each other, smiled and then refocused on Tim Garrett, the incinerator’s government project manager.
He sat at a computer station, where seconds before he had typed orders to ease the tray carrying the spent munitions out of the metal-parts furnace.
A few people clapped once or twice; Garrett twisted around in his chair.
“There ends the legacy,” he said.
Applause crowded the already-packed control room as people shook hands, smiled more widely and murmured congratulatory remarks to each other.
It took eight years and around-the-clock work by Army and contract employees to destroy the nerve- and mustard-agent-filled weapons stored in earthen bunkers at the Anniston Army Depot since the 1960s.
Much national attention and local anxiety arose before the start of the burn in 2003 at the $850 million incinerator site, located on depot property.
Sherri Sumners, the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce president, said media outlets from across the globe interviewed her more than 40 times in the first eight days of the burn. Residents concerned over their safety and worried about the possibility of chemical disasters eight years ago held protests and spoke out against the Army’s decision to destroy the chemical weapons so close to a populated area.
The media attention and locals’ concerns faded as operations began without a hitch Aug. 9, 2003, and continued — with a nearly perfect safety record — for eight years. Those concerns of chemical spills, leaks and explosions officially died Thursday.
As he stood watching the countdown to the end in the control room, the Anniston Chemical Activity commander used emphatic hand gestures to illustrate his emotions.
“This morning, driving in to work, I tried to think of words to capture that significance,” said Lt. Col. Willie Flucker, leader of the workforce responsible for the safe storage and transportation of the weapons. “I failed miserably ... nothing I could say adequately encompasses the life-force ... put into this moment.”
Words failed many of the officials and workers present Thursday.
After leaving the control room, people stood in clusters outside the steel and concrete buildings at the incinerator. Some chatted with one another in low voices, but most were quiet as they observed media representatives from across the state take pictures and notes.
Garrett, Flucker and Army spokesman Mike Abrams all described Thursday and the final weeks of the chemical burn as a “roller coaster of emotions.”
“Each major event has only gotten better,” Abrams said. He recalled the burn’s successful beginning and the safe destruction of the nearly 220,000 VX nerve-agent munitions on Christmas Eve 2008.
Officials were proud of both of those moments.
But, Abrams said, “today is the best.”
Abrams and others noted that sense of accomplishment is tempered by the new focus on cleaning up, dismantling and razing the site. Federal law requires workers to destroy the buildings and equipment that came into contact with chemical agent.
For now, that’s the plan, although local officials think it makes more sense to reuse the site.
Sumners said the Chamber of Commerce supports reusing the incinerator buildings and property to expand depot missions, such as the destruction of conventional munitions.
Calhoun County Commission Chairman Eli Henderson takes it a step further: He said he thinks the site buildings possibly could be reconfigured to destroy medical waste.
But to stop the dismantling of the incinerator, local officials have to successfully lobby to change the law. A study commissioned by U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, examines possibilities for reuse but it has yet to be released for public review, Sumners said.
Shelby did not attend the final burn Thursday and attempts to reach his office were unsuccessful.
U.S. Congressman Mike Rogers released a statement on his website commending incinerator employees “for their hard work in eliminating these hazardous materials while keeping Anniston residents safe.”
Thursday’s landmark came with the understanding that 1,000 people who work at the incinerator and the Anniston Chemical Activity are closer than ever to losing their jobs.
Henderson said the day saddled him with a slew of emotions.
“It’s a great day, but I worry about what these people will do now,” he said.
Standing next to former Anniston mayor Chip Howell in the control room, Henderson held up the bumper sticker he had promised to bring. The commission chairman had composed its message before the burn began, when officials were still in the throes of deciding whether to start the program.
“Build it. Burn it. Forget it,” the sticker reads.
And for the most part, officials said, that message has held true.
Garrett described the mood in the control room at 10 a.m. Thursday when he fed the last 72 mustard-filled projectiles into one of three furnaces at the site.
“There was a calm, still feeling that the last items were being fed,” Garrett said, similar to the austere, low-profile operation incinerator workers have maintained over the past eight years.
“The proud moment is realizing we did it right,” he said.
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562.