It’s one of those good news, bad news situations.
The good news? That’s obvious. No more GB, no more VX, no more mustard.
The bad news is, when the stockpile is gone, about 1,000 jobs could go with it.
These aren’t, as we’ve pointed out before, low-wage positions the community will be losing. For the most part, these are high-tech, high-paying jobs. Even the less skilled positions at the Anniston Chemical Agent Disposal Facility pay well.
With unemployment still hovering around 10 percent, losing these civilian and military jobs could be a huge blow to the community.
So it pays to think about what is going to happen after the stockpile is gone and what, if anything, can be done with the existing facility. And it makes sense to start thinking about it sooner than later.
It is worth remembering, too, that this is likely to happen pretty soon. If the process continues at the current pace, the Army will easily make the treaty deadline of 2012. In fact, it is likely the stockpile will be destroyed in late 2011 or sooner.
As it turns out, ideas are being knocked around, in part because Congress required a study of the reuse of the facility as a provision in the 2010 defense appropriations bill. It is, however, a study of the reuse of the facility that is within — and this is hugely important to remember — the range of what is lawful.
That, in short, means the incinerator cannot continue to be used for the destruction of chemical weapons as that is expressly forbidden by law.
So, the Army, says Tim Garrett, the site manager, is preparing a study to present to Congress that will look at two possibilities for the reuse of the facility.
One would be to tear down the roughly 30,000-square-foot Munitions Demilitarization Building where the furnaces that destroy the chemical weapons are housed. The remaining out-buildings, some 175,000 square feet of space as well as the infrastructure, would remain.
It could make an ideal site for an industry wanting to locate here or as some sort of expansion for the Anniston Army Depot, says Garrett and Army Spokesman Mike Abrams.
The other option would be to keep the incinerator.
This option, Garrett stresses, would depend on the findings of an engineering report still under way that would determine the feasibility of reusing the facility.
The big question, of course, is what the thing will burn.
Not chemical weapons, says Garrett, and not — as was the consensus of a recent stakeholders meeting — industrial waste or other toxins.
What is on the table, however, says Garrett, is the possibility of destroying conventional munitions.
“Again,” said Garrett in a recent meeting, “this won’t go anywhere if the study doesn’t support it. But conventional munitions are already being destroyed at the Anniston Army Depot. All we are saying is that there could be a possibility of destroying them in a more scientific, safer and cleaner way at the [incinerator].”
Indeed, Garrett is correct. The depot, through the Anniston Defense Munitions Center, routinely destroys anti-tank missiles, rocket-propelled grenades and mines, according to the ADMC. (See box below.)
Garrett also said the incinerator has essentially been destroying many of the same munitions that could be destroyed in the future, such as mortars and artillery rounds. The difference, of course, is that the ones destroyed in the incinerator so far have contained chemical agent.
What Garrett and others are getting at is crucial to our local economy: If the feasibility study concludes the facility can be used for the destruction of conventional munitions, the bulk of the workforce in place now could remain.
To gauge just how realistic that is, the question was put to Robert Love, the project manager for Westinghouse Anniston, the employer of more than 800 people at the incinerator.
“It is something Westinghouse could handle seamlessly,” said Love.
But, he cautioned, there is a big caveat. Westinghouse’s current contract with the Army would have to be revisited.
Sherri Sumners, president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, represents one of the stakeholders present at the earlier meeting. The others, says Garrett, included Alabama Power and Alagasco.
Sumners wants to make one thing very clear: After the stockpile is gone, “The incinerator will absolutely not be used for the destruction of chemical weapons.”
As to the possibility of keeping the incinerator for other purposes, including conventional munitions, Sumners says, the incinerator was “a huge investment. Before we tear it down, let’s do due diligence to see what is possible.”
David Christian, a local architect who has long been a critic of the incinerator, said he was not surprised by Garrett’s and Abrams’ talk of the possibility of using the facility to destroy conventional munitions.
“When we first started talking about the incinerator years ago, a lot of promises were made that nothing like this would ever happen,” Christian said. “But it is happening, and I’m not surprised. It could not have come at a better time for the Army, unemployment is high and the economy is lousy.”
Christian stresses he is sympathetic with those suffering from unemployment, but he believes it is not necessarily the best thing for the community.
“A whole lot of questions need to be asked and answered before the community decides to do anything,” he said.
Anniston Star Editor at large John Fleming explores issues related to the area’s economy and businesses in this weekly news column. Send topic suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.