Work at Anniston Chemical Activity nearing end
by Patrick McCreless
pmccreless@annistonstar.com
Apr 24, 2013 | 5970 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Dassie Brown works with gas masks, where she disassembles, washes and stores them in plastic drums at the Toxic Test Equipment Branch building at Anniston Army Depot. (Photo by Trent Penny / The Anniston Star).
Dassie Brown works with gas masks, where she disassembles, washes and stores them in plastic drums at the Toxic Test Equipment Branch building at Anniston Army Depot. (Photo by Trent Penny / The Anniston Star).
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On the wall in front of Betty Leach recently stood several rows of black rubber boots, each receiving a steady stream of air to help them dry after a thorough cleaning.

For the last few months, Leach has helped clean and sort boots along with gas masks for the Anniston Chemical Activity, the agency once responsible for storing chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot. But that work will soon come to an end, exactly as planned, as will the agency responsible for it.

"I've enjoyed it and am proud to be a part of something that has made a difference in the community," Leach said, who will retire once her work is complete.

Leach is one of fewer than 50 employees still working for the Chemical Activity, which will hit another milestone May 7 by transferring control of its 155 igloos — where chemical weapons were once stored — to the depot. By May, the agency will also have finished cleaning and disposing of or sending to other depots the hundreds of boots and gas masks used in cleaning the igloos. The few employees who remain after that will work a few months and then close out the agency's budget later in the year.

"We've been very fortunate, we've got good quality folks," said Jesse Brown, civilian executive director for the agency. "They have a good attitude, knowing they're working themselves out of a job."

The Chemical Activity, which once had more than 170 employees, has been undertaking shutdown procedures since the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility’s incinerator at the depot destroyed the last chemical weapons there in 2011.

Clester Burdell, spokeswoman for the depot, said officials there do not yet have plans for the igloos.

"At this point, we don't have any plans to do anything with them but they will be used as needed," Burdell said.

During the destruction efforts at the depot, Chemical Activity employees transported 661,529 nerve and mustard agent weapons from the igloos to the incinerator, Brown said.

"All of our folks transported them without incident," Brown said.

Brown said while the destruction of the weapons garnered much attention from the public, it was the handling and transport of those weapons that presented much of the danger.

"The risk was in the storage and transportation, not in the destruction," Brown said. "Once you got to the incinerator everything was under engineered controls ... the actual danger was in the igloos and transportation."

The majority of the agency's igloos are 60 feet or 80 feet long, each a round-roofed concrete structure covered with dirt and grass. From September 2011 to the end of 2012, agency employees, after removing the weapons, continued working by extensively cleaning the igloos. However, the crews spent their time cleaning heavy metals and polychlorinated biphenyls, not agent from the chemical weapons.

"We cleaned the agent when there were leaks," Brown said. "What we did was wipe samples for 11 different non-agents, then pressure washed all the igloos."

In the last few months, workers have done testing on all the igloos to prove and certify to the Alabama Department of Environmental Management that each one was sufficiently clean.

"We had to do chip samples and wipe samples of the concrete ... we had to get it down so a government worker could work in there with no protection," Brown said.

Much of the equipment used by the agency has already been transported to the Blue Grass Army Depot in Kentucky and the Pueblo Army Depot in Colorado, which still have chemical weapons to destroy.

Dassie Brown spent her Tuesday disassembling gas masks, washing each piece and then sealing used parts in plastic drums for eventual disposal. Parts that have never been used were organized for shipment to the other depots.

"It's very important to me, I've enjoyed doing it," she said of the work.

Unlike Leach, however, she plans to continue working after cleanup efforts are complete, but has yet to find a job.

"I've been job searching — hopefully there will be some opening for me," she said.

Jesse Brown said of the remaining Chemical Activity workers who plan to continue working after the cleanup seven still are searching for new jobs.

"We will continue to help them find jobs until June," he said.

While the agency is nearing the end of its mission, many months of shutdown work at the incinerator are still left.

Tim Garrett, the Army’s site project manager for the incinerator, said the razing of the facility will begin next month and last through the summer of 2014. There are still 413 employees working at the incinerator.

Garrett said the destruction of the incinerator will be a long, complicated process.

"It's not a standard building that goes down like a hotel ... it's built to withstand an explosion," Garrett said. "It's an extremely fortified building."

Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.

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