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Army begins chemical weapons burn

Workers begin the destruction of chemical weapons Saturday in Anniston, Alabama.
Workers begin the destruction of chemical weapons Saturday in Anniston, Alabama.

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CNN's David Mattingly on the U.S. Army's decision to burn chemical weapons stored at a local incinerator.
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Tooele, Utah *

Anniston, Alabama *

Pine Bluff, Arkansas *

Umatilla, Oregon*

Pueblo, Colorado

Bluegrass, Kentucky

Newport, Indiana

Aberdeen, Maryland

* Incinerator site
Source: U.S. Army

(CNN) -- The U.S. Army on Saturday began burning chemical weapons in Anniston, eastern Alabama, a day after a federal judge turned back an effort to block the process.

The operation at an Army depot is beginning slowly and will take seven years to destroy the GB, VX and mustard gas and the rockets that carry them, said Army spokesman Mike Abrams.

The burn had been scheduled to begin Wednesday, but the Army agreed to delay until Friday's hearing on the request by the Chemical Weapons Working Group -- opponents of the burn -- for a temporary restraining order.

Craig Williams from the Chemical Weapons Working Group said his group has no immediate plan to take further legal action, and will confer with the groups' "allies in the region over the next 24 hours" about what to do.

Opponents of the billion-dollar incineration project argue that safety measures, such as the pressurization of county school buildings to keep fumes out, have not yet been completed.

The Army agreed to conduct only "limited burns" until schools and community facilities are "pressurized" this fall. No school is closer than seven miles from the facility.

"We are not doing anything dangerous for this community," Abrams said. "We're actually part of the solution. The storage of chemical weapons is 34 times more risky than the operation of the facility."

Rockets to be drained of sarin nerve gas

Abrams said the plan for Saturday was to tackle two M55 rockets, each containing about a gallon of the deadly nerve agent GB, also known as sarin nerve gas, and do eight more rockets on Sunday.

Abrams said the nerve agent would be drained from the rockets before they are burned.

No nerve agent will be burned for four weeks, he said.

Working inside the plant is a dangerous job, Abrams said, outlining the safety procedures in place for those who must enter the facility and the complex ventilation system there.

"With that system, the agent can't leave out of the plant," he said. "There is absolutely no reason for someone, in this community, to do anything different today than what they did yesterday or anytime prior to today."

Army stresses public safety

Control room operators are seen training at the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in July.
Control room operators are seen training at the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility in July.

Acting Secretary of the Army Les Brownlee made the decision to start operations.

"Public safety remains our principal interest," Brownlee said. "The Army has demonstrated since 1990 that it can safely destroy these chemical munitions, having already destroyed over 8,000 tons of chemical agent and over 1.3 million munitions without harming human health or the environment."

The Army will also continue to implement safety actions previously agreed upon with state and local officials. These actions will include protection of populations with special needs, activation of sirens and the Emergency Alert System, provision of tone alert radios and the use of updated toxicity thresholds for community emergency preparedness planning.

The agent will only be destroyed during pre-announced periods limited to weekends and the hours of 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. on weekdays.

The 35,000 residents around the facility considered most at risk have been offered protective hoods, air filters and shelter kits, Army officials said. Warning sirens have been put in place and evacuation routes have been mapped out.

Similar chemical-weapons destruction projects have been executed over the past 10 years in Utah and on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, with only minimal leakages, Army officials said. Further steps, such as the construction of a massive carbon filtration unit, have been taken to help protect the Alabama town.

Anniston lies between Atlanta, Georgia, and Birmingham, Alabama, less than two hours from each. The Army Depot is just west of the town.

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