Environmental Justice Case Study: Chemical Weapon Incineration at the Anniston Army Depot




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Key Contacts


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Map of Anniston, Alabama provided by the Census Bureau






Anniston, Alabama is located in the northeast region of Alabama.  It is the site of one of eight Army Depots (depository sites) in the United States.  The Anniston Army Depot (ANAD) started as an ammunition storage facility in 1941 under the command of the United States Army.  Regular ammunition was stored in the depot until 1963, when the Army started storing excess chemical weapons at the site.  Since then, the residents of Anniston have been subjected to adverse conditions that have brought about health problems due to chemical releases.  The Toxics Release Inventory National Report released by the Department of Defense shows ANAD as second in the nation for toxic releases (Marshall, 1996). The total toxic releases equaled 548,073 pounds in 1996, and contained zinc compounds, hexachoroethane, 1,1,1-Trichloroethane, chlorine and others (DOD, 1996). 


Years after the weapons were stored and had already released toxic material, the military decided to dispose of the chemical weapons through on-site incineration without public representation, violating the National Environmental Protection Act.  The incineration of these chemical weapons poses a new threat to the residents of Anniston, but the military insists that incineration is the safest manner in which to dispose of the weapons.  Furthermore, it is the military’s contention that the toxic release source has never been conclusively identified.     


Claims of environmental injustice have been raised over these events, yet the incinerator is still being built.  Under Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, this incinerator deserves the attention of certain Federal agencies.  There is a “disproportionately high and adverse health and environmental” effect of this policy decision upon “minority populations and low-income populations” (Executive Order 12898, 1994) considering the city of Anniston has an African-American population which is 267% higher than the national average (Census data 1990). 


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During World War I, the United States military started researching, developing and storing chemical weapons such as Mustard gas and VX gas.  All three activities continued to take place well into the 1960's until 1968 when the military decided that further production of these weapons were no longer necessary for national security (CSDP Report, article 2).  When production ended, the Army had an excessive stockpile of unused chemical weapons.  The resulting excessive stockpile ended up in depots (waste depository sites) throughout the country and in the Pacific.  These excess weapons were disposed of through practices such as ocean dumping until 1972, when the Marine Protection Act was passed by Congress (Bradbury, et. al 1994), disallowing waste disposal of this kind.  The Army was forced to find alternative disposal practices that were environmentally safe and sound.


Ten years of neutralization research done by the Army after the MPA (1972) passed resulted in a decision to incinerate the weapons at the current depository sites, without public involvement in this policy decision process.  This lack of public involvement violated the National Environmental Protection Act however, so in order to remedy the situation, the Army held meetings to discuss the location of incineration, but no discussion on methods or technologies of disposal took place.  The Army offered two alternatives; on-site (in existing storage depots) or off-site incineration (Futrell, 1996).  The obvious answer to these questions was “Not in my backyard (NIMBY).”  However, even when citizens surrounding on-site locations reflected the same sentiments, the Army cited the safety hazards of transportation when they decided to incinerate the chemical weapons on-site (Marshall, 1996).


One of these sites is the Anniston Army Depot (ANAD), which opened in 1941 to store ammunition until accepting chemical weapons in 1963 (VX, mustard and GB gases).  The city of Anniston and areas surrounding it have already been exposed to toxic materials from the ANAD.  It is an area that has already felt the effects of injustice, and now faces an even greater threat.  As studies are completed and results are compiled, the incinerator is being built under the scrutiny of many environmental organizations who call attention not only to the environmental impacts, but the environmental justice issues involved as well.


People understand that these weapons are dangerous, and will feel safer if the weapons ceased to exist.  However, is incineration the best method to ensure the safety of the people?  Many don’t think so.  Especially those living around the incinerator.  Are communities such as Anniston being turned into “human sacrifice zones” (Bullard, 1993)?  And if the transportation risks are so great, and on-site incineration is necessary, why is the excess stockpile located in Anniston in the first place? 

Construction on the incinerator is now complete and the Army is ready to start test-burns and then disposal of the chemical weapons.


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Key Actors


-The Army


The Army created these chemical weapons in order to deter other countries from using their chemical weapons on our troops or allied troops.  When the army stopped production and decided to dispose of these weapons, the method preference was incineration.  Many Public Laws were passed by Congress in order to set a deadline for the Army to dispose of the weapons safely.  The first deadline was set for September 30, 1994 (Public Law 100-456 1988).  The deadline has changed two more times, and is now set for sometime in 2007 as mandated by the international treaty called the “Chemical Weapons Convention.” 


The decision to incinerate the weapons on-site was decided in 1985, three years before Public Law 100-456 was enacted.  The Army claims that incineration is the safest method to dispose of the chemical weapons, and is “safe our workers, the community and the environment”  (ACADF Research Newsletter).  The Army offered Westinghouse Co. to contract the project, and they accepted. 



-Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM)


The ADEM issued a permit for construction to begin on June 19, 1997.  ADEM has come under serious scrutiny for this decision.  Lawsuits have been filed against ADEM, claiming that the department did not follow Alabama state code in determining what levels of cancer risk was hazardous to human health.  Montgomery Circuit Judge McCooey found this claim to be true on November 28, 2000.



-Alabama Citizens’ Advisory Commission (CAC)


The CAC consists of six members of citizens appointed by the Governor.  They are responsible for representing the community interest to the Army in monthly public meetings.  The CAC receives federal funding from the Department of Defense, but claims to be independent of the military (PMCD fact sheet).



-Serving Alabama’s Future Environment (SAFE)


SAFE is a major whistle-blowing not-for-profit citizens group in the region.  Combined with the efforts of other groups, SAFE has stood up for the rights of those living in Anniston.  They advocate the use of safer alternative technologies for treatment.  They represented two individuals in a complaint of discrimination to the EPA in 1997.  One of the major players in the lawsuit was Suzanne Marshall, who said that “most environmentalists do question numbers provided by the polluter” ( Marshall, 2000), in response to the study “Public Health Assessment:  Anniston Army Depot” (1999), which found that ANAD did not pose serious health risks to the surrounding citizens, and based it’s decision on numbers provided by ANAD. 



-Chemical Weapons Working Group (CWWG)


An international coalition of citizen’s organizations (SAFE being a member) that advocate safe disposal of chemical weapons, and opposes incineration.  This group presents articles and news releases on their web-site in order to inform the public of the latest news on the Army’s Chemical Weapon Stockpile Disposal Project.



-Coosa River Basin Initiative


A Georgia-based watershed advocacy group.  The Initiative filed suit in Montgomery, Alabama Circuit Court against the ADEM on three counts of violating either Alabama State Law or it’s own Administrative Code. 



-Calhoun County Commission


After hearing of chemical agent releases in a depository site in Utah, the Commission has called for independent research to be done on the site in Tooele, Utah.  Independent of the Army that is, for the commissioners “do not believe that leaving this investigation to the Army alone will satisfy our concerns.” (Press release from www.cwwg.org, 2000)



-Congressman Bob Riley


In a subcommittee hearing held on September 21, 2000, the Congressman was very skeptical, and said “it is absolutely wrong what they’re (the Army) is doing communities today.” (Press release from CWWG, 2000) The Congressman had stern questions for the Army’s incineration team, and is for some sort of alternative method of disposal.


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1990 US Census Data
Database: C90STF1A
Summary Level:


Anniston city: FIPS.STATE=01, FIPS.PLACE90=01852


Universe: Persons





Universe: Persons



American Indian, Eskimo, or Aleut..........................................49

Asian or Pacific Islander.................................................181

Other race.................................................................83




Universe: Specified owner-occupied housing units




 American Indian, Eskimo, or Aleut...........................................625000

 Asian or Pacific Islander..................................................1050000

 Other race..................................................................152500


Demographic data provided by www.census.gov



The demographic data from the Census Bureau displays the population break-down of the area in the first section.  The African-American population in Anniston is 44%, which is 267% higher than the national average.  Figures on income and net worth were unavailable.  However, the second section which is “Aggregate value by race of householder” displays the disproportionate distribution of aggregate value of householders in Anniston.  While the white population is only 12% higher than the African-American population, they account for 81% of the total aggregate value of householders in Anniston. 


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Months after the ADEM issued the permit to the Army, families living near the proposed incinerator, members of SAFE, CWWG, and the Sierra Club issued a complaint to EPA Administrator Carol Browner, claiming discrimination under Executive Order 12898.  Demographics and health hazards were compiled to illustrate the disproportionate effects the local population will incur if the incinerator became operational.  Furthermore, the complaint accused the ADEM of failing “to consider how additional exposures will impact low income people who may not have access to adequate health care of nutrition” (Complaint of Discrimination before the EPA, 1997).  The complaint goes on to explain that similar incinerator plans have been halted in Maryland and Indiana in favor of safer technologies.  “Safer technologies should be made equally available to all communities regardless of race, income, or national origin.”  No judgment has passed on this matter however.  The EPA has not made any moves.


SAFE, along with Families Concerned About Nerve Gas Incineration appealed to ADEM’s issuance of the permit in July 1997.  During the hearings of this appeal, Westinghouse Electric Co. Plant Manager, Richard Harral, admitted in a sworn testimony that had not reviewed the requirements for health and safety standards when he accepted the contract from the Army to contract the project.  During the hearings, Calhoun County resident Michael Marvinny asked, “How can ADEM permit a facility of this complexity and hazardous potential when the chief of Westinghouse plant manager does not have a complete understanding of the application?”  These findings lead the groups to look into lawsuits that would revoke the permit that was issued.


On September 3, 1998, the Coosa River Basin Initiative filed suit to have the incinerator permit revoked.  The lawsuit, alleges the ADEM of violating Alabama Code 41-22-5, which lays out the procedure for determining what level of cancer risk is allowed in order to issue a hazardous waste permit. (Press Release, CWWG, 2000).  More than two years later, a significant ruling in this case was made by Circuit Judge McCooey.  She found that the ADEM did in fact violate this code.  Her final ruling is still pending while she awaits final submissions from all parties.


All of the legal attention has gained recognition in Congress which has held hearings about this specific case, and others around the country that are similar. 


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A solution to the overriding problem of environmental injustice has not been the real issue in this case.  Legal battles are fought to revoke permits that have been issued.  This is probably due to the fact that proving environmental injustice is very difficult to do in our legal system, and the EPA has taken no action in the matter. 


At the moment, this case is unresolved.  However, the 2000 Court ruling could bring an end to the legal battle in the near future.  The plaintiffs in the case encourage the Army to institute the new technologies that they have been working on in Maryland and Indiana.  The Army is setting a precedent of installing new technology at other sites. This has given even more fuel to local citizens who demand equal treatment.  Armed with this knowledge, as well as the insufficient health and safety planning of the ADEM, Army and Westinghouse, a court might revoke the ADEM permit.


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There are clearly two sides in this case: pro-incineration and anti-incineration.  On the pro side, the support comes from Federal agencies and contractors that have invested $800 million in the incinerators.  On the anti side are local citizens and organizations that are concerned about health hazards of burning some of the most dangerous chemicals known to man in the backyards of citizens of Anniston. 


The interaction of these two groups have brought on legal battles that have lasted many years.  It will not be possible to propose a single solution that will make everybody happy.  Investment of capital should never take precedence over the health and safety of any individual.  If technology exists that is safer and cleaner, than that technology should be instituted. If no such technology exists, than it is time for the EPA to step in, or to appeal the court decisions until it reaches the Supreme Court to set a precedent requiring enforcement of Executive Order 12898.


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Key People to Contact


Anniston Community Outreach Office

(205) 238-0120

(to reach Alabama’s Citizen’s Advisory Board)


Chemical Weapons Working Group

Kentucky Environmental Foundation

P.O. Box 467

Brea, KY 40403

phone: (859) 986-7565


Coosa River Basin Initiative

408 Broad Street

Rome, GA 30161

phone: (706) 232-2724


Serving Alabama’s Future Environment

P.O. Box 1463

Anniston, AL 36202


Suzanne Marshall PhD.

Department of History

Jacksonville State University

Jacksonville, Alabama


Web Site Links










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Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility Research Newsletter (2000).  Volume I, Issue I - Article 2.  (www-pmcd.apgea.army.mil/CSDP/SL/ANCA/reach/vol1iss1/disposal.asp)


Bradbury, J.A., Branch, K.M., Heerwagen,J.H. & Liebow E.B. (1994).  “Community Viewpoints of the Chemical Stockpile Disposal Program.” Washignton, DC: Batelle Corp.


Bullard, Robert D (Ed.). (1993).  Confronting Environmental Racism. Boston MA: South End Press (from Marshall, Suzanne paper)


Campbell, Gary, Gonzalez, Emilio. (1999) “Public Health Assessment: Anniston Army Depot.”

Prepared by; Federal Facilities Assessment Branch, Division of Health Assessment and Consultation, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry


Chemical Weapons Working Group press release.  (2000).  “Alabama Judge Finds ADEM in Violation of State Law at Anniston Chem Weapons Incinerator.” &  “Alabama’s Calhoun County Commission Asks ‘Vexing Questions’ about Utah Chemical Agent Releases.”


Marshall, Suzanne.  (1996)  “Chemical Weapons Disposal and Environmental Justice.”  Educational Foundation of America. 


Marshall, Suzanne.  (2000).  Email correspondence.



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