ANNISTON, Ala. – When the Army began building incinerators to destroy tons of deadly chemical weapons, many feared the worst.
They protested, sued, demanded gas masks for nearby residents and raised the specter of exposure to deadly exhaust.
But now, more than half of the nation's aging cache of 31,500 tons of nerve agents and mustard gas has been burned or chemically neutralized at seven sites with no major accidents in the 18 years since the program began.
In eastern Alabama, Joyce Walker says she and her husband sleep well at night, a few miles away from Anniston Army Depot, where 2,254 tons of chemical munitions were stored for decades in dirt-covered concrete bunkers.
"I'll be glad when it's gone, but I don't think about it very much," Walker said.
Like many people in the area, she hasn't opened the safety gear given by the military and meant to save her life in the worst-case scenario considered by officials: A large explosion, like one caused by an airliner crashing into a bunker, creating a cloud of lethal nerve agent that could drift for several miles.
Officials say the most deadly chemicals were destroyed first and almost all the risk to residents has been eliminated.
"The engineers who designed this thing were really on top of things as far as I can tell," said Darrell Davenport, who handled the first weapon brought into the incinerator site in 2003 and still works there.
Critics still challenge the safety of the program, arguing the incinerators scattered across the United States belch unknown amounts of deadly chemicals on an unsuspecting public. The incinerators heat the agents and their containers at thousands of degrees, then run the exhaust through pollution-removing filters and afterburners.
"If you go by their body count so far, I guess it has been a success," said Craig Williams of the Kentucky-based Chemical Weapons Working Group, which has been the lead watchdog group on the program and has pushed the Army to consider alternatives to incineration. "The fact is we still don't know what is coming out of the stacks or what the long-term effect will be."
The Army says all its emissions are closely monitored and there is likely no risk. Low-level leaks have been detected in the past at some of the incinerator sites and bunkers, but they have not threatened any people, officials say.
The Chemical Materials Agency, which oversees the storage and destruction of most of the military's chemical stockpile, says the program's only death was at Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, where a worker died in a fall after scaffolding collapsed.
"We really haven't had a serious incident throughout the life of the program concerning chemical weapons," said Greg Mahall, a spokesman for the agency. "We're very proud of our safety record."
The cost is steep. The total cost of destroying all U.S. chemical weapons is estimated at $34 billion. Under an international treaty, it's supposed to be completed by 2012.
Incinerators are operating at Tooele, Utah; Umatilla, Ore.; and Pine Bluff, Ark. A facility at Newport, Ind., is nearly finished using chemical treatments to break down old weapons.
The stockpile at Aberdeen, Md., has been neutralized, and the first incinerator, on Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific, was dismantled after destroying about 2,000 tons of chemical agents.
Destruction of stockpiles by chemical neutralization has yet to start in Pueblo, Colo., and Richmond, Ky.
Located near Interstate 20 about 50 miles east of Birmingham, Anniston was the nation's first weapons incinerator located in a residential area. The region is home to thousands of depot employees and retirees who owe their livelihoods to the Army.
The site has finished destroying its most hazardous munitions, including rockets and artillery shells loaded with VX or sarin. Thousands of VX land mines and shells and mortars packed with mustard gas await destruction.
"From a risk perspective to the community, over 98 percent of the risk is gone," site manager Timothy Garrett said. "The risk with the land mines is so small it's hard to put on a chart, and there is no risk to the community from the mustard gas."
The state has issued $50,700 in fines since 2005 for violations that included improper processing procedures and using faulty equipment. Garrett called the amount small for the size of the operation.
Responding to demands from local officials and incineration opponents, the military provided many of the 35,000 people who live within nine miles of the incinerator with safety kits that include breathing hoods, sheeting and tape to seal off a room. Some schools retrofitted buildings so they can be overpressurized to keep out lethal fumes. So far, none of the precautions have been needed.
At the site, detection devices constantly monitor the air. Everyone carries a gas mask. Workers wear gear resembling astronaut suits when they enter potentially lethal areas, and nearly all the incineration work is done by remote control.
When the work is done, the incinerator will likely cannibalize some of its own parts and close down, as required by law. Workers like Chuck Doscher, a control room supervisor, wonder if it could be converted for civilian use, but realize their goal.
"We know we're all working ourselves out of a job," Doscher said.