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ENVIRONMENT REPORT — U.S. Begins Chemical Weapons Burn - 2003-08-14

Broadcast: August 15, 2003

This is the VOA Special English Environment Report.

In the United States, the Army has started to destroy old chemical weapons at a base in the southern state of Alabama. The operation began last Saturday at a storage center near the city of Anniston.

This is the first time the United States military has burned chemical weapons near a populated area. About thirty-five thousand people live within fifteen kilometers of the base.

Environmental and civil rights groups appealed to a federal court in Washington to block the action. But a judge ruled that the opponents failed to show that the operation is a serious risk to the public.

The Army is destroying shells, rockets and other weapons. These contain deadly chemicals such as sarin nerve gas and mustard gas. Workers will remove the chemicals and cut the weapons into pieces for burning at almost six-hundred degrees Celsius. The Army will also burn the chemicals when enough is collected in a storage tank. The Army says it expects the process to take seven years.

Workers in Alabama handled ten rockets last weekend. But the Army said equipment problems delayed the operation early this week. An Army spokesman said there was no danger of a chemical release.

The Army prepared for the burn, and dealt with legal opposition, for several years. Army officials are providing protective clothing and equipment to people who live near the base. Warning systems and escape plans have been established.

Opponents, however, say they do not believe the burning is safe. And they say some schools have not yet received equipment to keep out dangerous chemicals if an accident happens. Army officials say they will carry out only limited burns until schools and community centers are fully protected.

The military says destroying the old weapons is safer than storing them. About seven-hundred-thousand weapons have been stored at the base since the nineteen-sixties. They have been kept in concrete structures covered in earth. But Army officials say that some of the chemicals have begun to leak.

The Army also has bases to burn chemical weapons in the state of Utah and on Johnston Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. But those bases are far from populated areas.

This VOA Special English Environment Report was written by Cynthia Kirk.