Since September, wrecking balls and cranes have been demolishing the building where Anniston’s chemical weapons stockpile was once destroyed. The demolition is the final stage of the decades-long project to destroy the 7 percent of the nation’s chemical weapons once stored in Anniston.
“It’s amazing,” said Guy Campbell, project manager for the contractor Westinghouse Anniston, overseeing construction crews ripping down the steel and concrete of the facility. “You put so much money and time in to build it, and now you tear it down.”
While destruction of the facility just started, the plans to knock the building down were in place before groundbreaking on the project even got started. Mike Abrams, the Army’s public affairs officer on the project, said that when the federal government first started looking at Anniston as a site to destroy some of the nation’s chemical weapons, there was some outcry from the public about the project taking place close to residential areas. Alabama officials made sure that the project had a timeline and the facility would not be used to store or destroy more hazardous materials than the chemical weapons already at the Anniston Army Depot, Abrams said. The project ended up adopting a phrase from then-Calhoun County Commissioner Eli Henderson as an unofficial motto: “Build it, burn it, forget it.”
“We built it to tear it down,” said Tim Garrett, the Army’s project manager for the site.
Construction of the incinerator started in 1996 and the first weapons were destroyed in 2003. At its peak of operation, the facility employed more than 1,000. Workers destroyed the last weapon in 2011.
Today, just 166 employees remained at the site. In March, when the demolition is complete, the work force will be reduced to 90, and again to 28 in June with the official site closure.
“It takes a long time to close out a big contract,” Garrett said. “It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re done,’ and we walk away.”
It also takes a long time to destroy a facility built to withstand explosions. The site has contracted with St. Louis-based Spirtas Wrecking to handle the demolition, which is expected to last until April.
From completion to demolition, the project will end up costing $2.7 billion, which includes a price tag of $369 million for the closing phases of the site, Garrett said.
Abrams said the federal government would not allow for the building that stored and destroyed the weapons to be used for other purposes, although there were suggestions that the facility could be used by the Army or Department of Defense after the weapons destruction.
“There just wasn’t enough to get funds and support in these budgetary times,” Abrams said. “It was just easier to destroy the building.”
Not that the facility will go to waste, Garrett said. Some of the government property has already been given to other agencies, including computers donated to schools. Most of the lab equipment at the site will be donated to Jacksonville State University, Auburn University and the University of Alabama.
Many of the warehouses on the site will remain intact and be handed over to the Anniston Army Depot. Scrap metal from the incinerator will be recycled.
The site of the facility itself, however, will soon be just graveled land.
“It’s almost anti-climactic,” Garrett said. “They just knocked over a tower, it went boom, and that was it.”
That’s probably the way it should be, Garrett said, noting the biggest accomplishment of the project was keeping the public safe and informed and “not scared to death” about its impact on the community.
“They were concerned with getting to church on Wednesday or Sunday, or going to Anniston or Wellborn or Oxford Friday night for football games,” Garrett said. “That’s more important than what we’re doing out here.”
Staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.