Eight years ago, the Comedy Central faux-news program was just one of 40-plus media outlets jockeying for interviews with Sumners, the president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce.
Back then, workers were just beginning to burn the massive stockpile of chemical weapons stored in igloos at Anniston Army Depot. With the Iraq war still in its first year, the image of 2,200 tons of chemical weapons stored quietly in the Alabama hills was too much for the media to resist. And Sumners — the woman charged with making Anniston attractive to new industries — was the person everyone wanted to talk to.
She sat for interviews with CNN, with the BBC, with CBS News. And for an interview with the satirical Daily Show, in which an interviewer asked if she thought chemical weapons incineration was safe.
“We’re still here,” she said. The film editors froze the frame right there, with Sumners looking a bit wild-eyed.
That was 2003. Eight years later, Sumners is still Chamber president. The chemical weapons are gone, the last of them burned Thursday.
Sumners would like the world’s media to come back and talk to her again.
“If The Daily Show called me again, I’d say the same thing,” she said. “We’re still here.”
That year, 2003, was a bad one for Anniston’s image. First, there was start of incineration, reminding people of the chemical stockpile. Then, there was the lawsuit against the Monsanto Corp.
Neither problem — the chemical weapons stockpile nor the PCBs — was really new. Both had existed in the area, secretly or semi-secretly, for decades, and 2003 arguably marked the start of the cleanup for both.
But the view from outside was different. The world had just discovered Anniston was a poisoned city. Months before the burn began, CBS news’ 60 Minutes, referring to the Monsanto case, called Anniston the “most toxic city in America.” The Daily Show, in a dig at the rationale for war in Iraq, announced that they’d found weapons of mass destruction — in Alabama. National Public Radio filed reports from Anniston twice in one week — one story about chemical weapons, the other about PCBs.
The coverage left Anniston residents with the impression that their city was widely seen as a “toxic town.” Even now, references to PCBs typically pop up in the first page of results when someone searches “Anniston” on Google.
But Anniston’s famous toxic pollution is gone now. The lead- and PCB-contaminated soil at 700 Anniston residences and businesses has been cleaned up, thanks to a multi-million-dollar effort mandated by court settlements against Monsanto. With the burning of the final 72 mustard-gas-filled rockets at Anniston Chemical Activity Thursday, the city can no longer claim to be sitting on a chemical time bomb.
The total cost to get rid of Monsanto’s PCBs and other industrial pollution? According to an analysis by Star commentary editor Phillip Tutor, the price tag is $3.2 billion.
Thursday’s final burn was the last step in that cleanup. On that day, Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson said he’d heard from only two out-of-town news outlets — one from Huntsville and the other from Birmingham — since the end of the burn was announced.
So who’s getting out the word that Anniston’s cleanup is complete?
“I don’t know of anybody who’s doing a PR campaign,” Robinson said. “But that sounds like a damn good idea.”
The new effort
“Clearly, that’s a message that we should promote,” said Toby Bennington, city planner for Anniston. “We should be telling the world about this accomplishment, and it is indeed a great accomplishment.”
Bennington said he didn’t know of anyone who is planning a public relations campaign to share the news of Anniston’s clean bill of health.
“It sounds like something that the Chamber would be asked to do,” he said.
Sumners agrees “someone” should start a campaign to publicize Anniston’s new status as a non-toxic town. But not Sherri Sumners.
“At this point, the Chamber has given me entirely to the new effort,” she said.
The “new effort” is a $600,000 push, funded by the federal government, to find a way to keep the 1,000 workers at the incinerator employed. Among other things, the project includes Operation First Rate, a website dedicated to putting incinerator workers in contact with future employers.
So far, despite the end of the burn, incinerator workers haven’t been lining up at the unemployment office. Shutting down the incinerator is itself a large job, and local officials are still hoping the federal government will find another use for the facility. Sumners stresses that anyone in Calhoun County can come to Operation First Rate for help finding a job.
“The only lingering concern from the incinerator is the people who will lose their jobs,” she said. “If we find a way to address those concerns, we’ll do the city a lot of good.”
Not everybody believes Alabama’s national reputation is all that toxic — at least, not from PCBs and VX.
Betsy Bean, director of the downtown revitalization organization Spirit of Anniston, said she rarely hears talk about Anniston’s past pollution from her out-of-town contacts. What she does hear is talk about the city’s uncomfortable place in civil rights history.
“People know about the burning bus,” she said. “That’s an image that’s very well known, and it’s what many people think about when you say ‘Anniston.’”
In 1961, the Freedom Riders — a group of activists challenging segregated accommodations on interstate buses in the Deep South — came through Anniston on a Greyhound bus. They were met by a group of white protesters, many of them Klansmen, who burned the bus and beat the passengers. Newspaper photos of the blazing bus became an icon of the era, found in history textbooks and on the walls of civil rights museums.
Neither of Anniston’s environmental crises produced a similar well-known image, Bean noted.
Even so, Bean thinks it makes perfect sense to hold a celebration to mark the end of Anniston’s biggest environmental woes.
“We need to do a major public relations push to let the world know we’ve solved this problem,” she said. “Somebody needs to do that.”
But not Betsy Bean.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’ve had my budget cut in half, and it’s not something I’m authorized to do.”
Bean noted that Spirit, a nonprofit that receives much of its funding from Anniston’s city government, is charged with attracting people to Anniston’s downtown. Her authority, she said, extends only from Eighth Street to 15th Street.
Taken by surprise
In an odd way, local leaders were caught flat-footed by the news that the burn was completed, even though chemical weapons have been an overarching concern for decades.
Throughout the last year of the burn, Army spokesmen were reluctant to over-promise, offering vague estimates of the completion date — timetables that grew shorter as the stockpile shrank. Incinerator officials didn’t announce a hard date for the final burn until a week before it happened.
Sumners said she understands the reasons for the Army’s caution.
“You don’t want to announce the end and then have a mishap,” she said. “The problem is that we’re at the end, and now we’re all saying, ‘Oh, it’s here!’”
Mayor Robinson agrees.
“I didn’t know they were going to finish burning until a few days ago,” he said.
Sumners is quick to point out that there’s plenty of time for the city to celebrate the end of the burn. A good PR campaign, she said, should be approached with care.
“We need to put some careful thought into what we want to say,” she said.
But without that campaign, she said, Anniston’s new era will begin on a subdued note.
“The burn has been like the month of March,” she said. “In like a lion, out like a lamb.”
Assistant metro editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560