Ala. incinerator burns last of its chemical weapons

The Army says it has incinerated the last of tons of chemical weapons that were stored for decades at the Anniston Army Depot in eastern Alabama.

Workers using remote machinery burned the final load of 72 shells filled with mustard gas on Thursday afternoon. It was the end of more than 660,000 munitions stored at the site.

The end came more than eight years after the incinerator began burning chemical weapons at the Anniston Army Depot.

Dirt-covered bunkers that once held tons of nerve agent and mustard gas are now empty. Officials say no one was accidentally exposed to chemical agent during the entire process.

Chemical weapons destruction began at the facility in 2003 after more than 10 years of permit application reviews by the Alabama Department of Environmental Management.

Located about 50 miles east of Birmingham, the Anniston depot is home to the nation's only chemical weapons incinerator located near residential areas. Census figures show more than 360,000 people live in the surrounding four counties.

The overall project included more than 25 public hearings, and was among the most controversial operations ever undertaken by ADEM.

"Mere words can not express my gratitude to the ADEM staff who, over the past eight years, has spent time away from their families to monitor this facility and ensure the safe, efficient destruction of these weapons of mass destruction," said ADEM Director Lance LeFleur. "The citizens in Anniston and across Alabama are safer today than they were when this process began and I am proud this agency could play such a major role in ensuring that safety.

While the destruction of all chemical weapons is complete, closure activities continue. ADEM says residual chemicals and equipment must be cleaned or destroyed.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. WSFA 12 News contributed. All Rights Reserved.)