$3.2B: Anniston spares no expense in neutralizing ‘Toxic Town’ rep

 

From Bynum’s gentle hills to McClellan’s expanse to west Anniston’s marriage of man and industry, outsiders could be forgiven for seeing Anniston as discarded and long-forgotten Army ordnance.

It’s taken $3.2 billion to clean up the conditions that earned Anniston its reputation as a polluted place.

In truth, it is $3,181,950,000 — the amount spent in roughly the last eight years by a buffet of agencies to clean up this former industrial and military town. Or, thought of this way, to give the city a second life free of man-made mistakes that polluted its soil, sickened its people and made its residents live next door to deteriorating Cold War-era chemical weapons.

Rewriting that impression is key to Anniston’s future. Without it, Anniston might forever be known as “America’s most toxic town” — the damning moniker, given by 60 Minutes, that’s swayed albatross-like around the city’s neck since 2002.

That $3.2 billion figure is derived from four main sources that dominate Anniston’s cleanup landscape: the chemical-weapons incinerator, the ordnance removal at McClellan, and PCB and lead remediation centered in west Anniston. Two of those sources are federal projects paid for by taxpayer dollars, the others are private-sector businesses. Officials with those projects provided The Star with financial statements and estimates of their expenses.

A key point: The $3.2 billion total is money spent on cleaning up Anniston — nothing else. By design, it does not include settlement payouts in the city’s landmark PCBs cases. It does not include the millions — perhaps well above $100 million, officials say — of Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program money used to over-pressurize buildings, improve evacuation roads, modernize emergency-warning systems and distribute duct tape and gas masks to Pink Zone residents near the incinerator.

It does not include money for warning sirens that blare on the first Tuesday of each month. And it does not include any other cleanup operations in the city’s past not linked directly to those four aforementioned sources.

Sprinkled throughout archives at The Star are three decades of stories that describe oft-forgotten procedures to clean polluted land, usually involving Fort McClellan or Anniston Army Depot. For example, a 2008 series detailed how the Army had “spent millions of dollars” since 1978 to combat tricholrethylene, or TCE, contamination in the groundwater at and around the depot. Previous stories list some of those attempts: $4.5 million spent one year, $5.2 spent another, to clean the lagoons in which waste chemicals were stored at the depot and may have led to the TCE contamination.

In truth, it may be impossible to get a full accounting of how much money has been spent on environmental cleanup operations in Anniston.

Nevertheless, today we can posit two strong opinions.

• There may be few, if any, U.S. cities whose environmental and military cleanups have been more costly.

• The Toxic Town label is nearing its end.

“We have a huge success story to tell,” said Anniston Water Works Director Jim Miller, who chairs the city’s Public Building Authority and sits on a number of prominent Calhoun County-based boards. “We survived. We’re tough. We’ve been made tougher by all these things.

“Bring it on.”

Money well-spent

Anniston’s $3.2 billion makeover is heavily influenced by the incinerator, which, under much controversy, began operations in August 2003.

To date, the incinerator has eliminated nearly 97 percent of the stockpile of Cold War-era chemical weapons the Army warehoused in earthen igloos at Anniston Army Depot. Likewise, there have been no incidents in which Pink Zone residents have had to don safety masks amid whoop-whoop sounds of emergency sirens.

Financially, the incinerator is the Trump Tower of Anniston’s makeover, as evidenced by Anniston’s following cleanup expenses of the last eight years:

• Incinerator: $2,911,500,000.

• McClellan: $104 million.

• Solutia: $125,450,000.

• Foothills Community Partnership: $41 million.

Each of those figures can be broken down in various ways. At the incinerator, for example, $1.559 billion of its total has been spent on operations, and its overall total will continue to rise until the munitions cache is destroyed. Project Manager Tim Garrett estimates the facility’s closing will cost $445.3 million.

At McClellan, the cleanup costs for 2003 through 2010 include three basic breakdowns, according to McClellan Development Authority finance director Garland Heare: $14.5 million for environmental cleanup, $74 million for ordnance cleanup, and $15.5 million for overhead. Those numbers will increase as the MDA and UXO contractors continue those efforts. (And they do not include any costs from the Army’s final years at Fort McClellan or during the transition years immediately following closure.)

In west Anniston, Solutia has spent more than $120 million on remediation of PCB-polluted properties following the $700 million settlement of the class-action court cases against Monsanto in 2003. Separate from those remediation costs is $6.4 million spent on community outreach efforts, such as the Anniston Community Education Foundation.

Also, Foothills spokesman Tom Potts estimates that the group — made up of former and current owners of industrial operations in the city — has spent $41 million. Nearly 5,400 residential properties have been tested, and more than 700 properties found to have high levels of lead contamination have had their soil cleaned.

A side item worth noting: Financially, the air-stripper towers that remove TCE from Anniston’s water supply at the Krebs Water Treatment Plant off Alabama 202 are a drop in the bucket when compared to big-ticket items such as the incinerator. Operational since 2005, the strippers cost “only” $3.2 million, half of which was paid by the Army.

However, their function is critical. TCE likely related to the depot’s use of degreasers for nearly 40 years have long been linked to contamination found in some groundwater supplies surrounding the depot. The strippers, which resemble a six-pack of giant-sized Coors Light beer cans, are one of the latest efforts to strip Anniston of one of its many nasty environmental worries.

In other words, Anniston has undergone an environmental makeover in less than a decade: Its chemical weapons are nearly destroyed, many of its PCB- and lead-polluted properties have been cleaned and swaths of McClellan’s acreage have been cleared of ordnance so the former post can be safely redeveloped.

By no means is the job done, particularly at the former fort or the depot, one of the county’s most vital employers. The TCE strippers are still in use. Similarly, it may be impossible to fully remediate every property tainted by PCBs and lead.

Followers of Anniston’s environmental legacy can recite the roster of official boards, task forces and activist groups that have formed in either Anniston or greater Calhoun County just in the last generation. Both the depot and the former fort have Restoration Advisory Boards. Then there is Community Against Pollution, Families Concerned About Nerve Gas Incineration, Serving Alabama’s Future Environment, and Sweet Valley-Cobbtown Environmental Justice Task Force — examples of residents coalescing in their various quests. Some, such as CAP, have been highly visible, vigorous and influential.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that the $3.2 billion spent in the last eight years has bought Anniston more than an updated public-relations campaign. It does not make up for the pollution of the past. It does not absolve fault or right wrongs. But it has improved some residents’ lives, cleaned hundreds of properties and allowed Anniston to begin rewriting its next chapters with economic development and progress, not residents living in shadowy fear of the water they drink or the chemical weapons they call neighbors.

Anniston is the $3.2 billion city.

‘The perfect storm’

Annistonians should ask: Can they imagine the city’s future had it not embarked on a course that scrubbed away some of the worst parts of its environmental legacy?

Former Anniston Mayor Chip Howell, whose two terms were dominated by the incinerator and the city’s incessant environmental issues, proudly calls this a “beautiful part of the world.” He says it with a twinkle in his eye, the look of a former politician proud of his hometown and its people.

But, he says, without Anniston’s cleanup efforts, “I think there would have been parts of town that would have been totally abandoned, fenced and locked away.”

He ticks off Anniston’s “Toxic Town” factors — the incinerator, the weapons, the pollution, the left-behind ordnance. His face turns more serious than usual.

“You can’t make this crap up. It was the perfect storm (of environmental and military events). If one of them wasn’t bad enough …”

Or, to put it in context, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the play?” Howell said.

For Miller, the water board director, the thought of an Anniston still lathered in gross environmental neglect and Cold War excess is frightening. Today, Anniston is hardly perfect, and the city’s harshest critics say it suffers from a distinct lack of elected leadership due to a dysfunctional City Hall.

But without widespread environmental cleanup, Anniston’s recovery “would be insurmountable. It’s hard to imagine,” Miller said. “If that very situation had happened, you’d have people born and raised here and nobody else.”

Eli Henderson, a Calhoun County commissioner from Wellborn, saw it in his usual homespun, if not accurate, way. “We’d still be backing up, arguing, fussing, (filing) lawsuits. We wouldn’t be accomplishing a thing.”

Garrett, the incinerator manager, put it succinctly: “It would be substantially devastating.”

Recasting an image

This story’s core is one of eventual redemption, a city more phoenix than albatross. It may be impossible to confirm, but it’s a safe hypothesis that the amount of money spent on Anniston’s cleanup ranks among the highest ever among U.S. cities.

A recent example provides context: The 2008 Kingston, Tenn., coal-ash spill may not have the environmental effect of the 2010 BP oil spill — nor cost as much to repair — but its damage and lingering consequences are profound, nonetheless.

There, the Tennessee Valley Authority told the Knoxville News Sentinel, the cleanup for the coal-ash spill — which released 5.4 million cubic yards of sludge from a ruptured storage cell — will cost $1.2 billion. That’s roughly one-third of Anniston’s cleanup bill.

Cleaning up Anniston’s environmental ailments is both critical and right. But just behind those requirements is the repair of the city’s reputation, one that some fear has been eternally bleached by the same toxins that have polluted our soil.

In 2011, Internet searches continue to link “Anniston” with phrases such as “most polluted cities in America.” In that sense, the $3.2 billion spent to clean Anniston is ignored; instead, what is perpetually highlighted are pains of the past. It makes one fear that even another billion dollars wouldn’t remove Anniston from such damaging comparisons.

“Unfortunately, the problem with the Internet is that it’s out there forever,” Miller said. “I don’t know how you set the record straight.”

Concentrating on Monsanto’s PCBs pollution, environmental website EarthFirst.com lists Anniston as seventh on its Top 10 list of “Worst man-made environmental disasters.” Both EarthFirst and Greenerideal.com, another environmental watchdog site, lump Anniston in with cities such as Libby, Mont., and Picher, Okla., whose stories are similarly harrowing.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been working for more than a decade to clean Libby, a town of 3,000 people, of its overwhelming pollution related to asbestos mining. Picher isn’t as fortunate. The former city of only 1,600 residents has been evacuated after decades of lead and zinc mining caused high levels of pollution and fears of cave-ins of underground mines.

Today, the city doesn’t exist. Yet, it’s not uncommon to see Anniston still listed alongside Libby, Picher and others like them.

Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Mountain View, Calif.-based Center for Public Environmental Oversight, which tracks toxic pollution nationwide, isn’t ready to remove Anniston from the toxic-city list or place it near the top, either.

“I agree that Anniston is one of the America’s most toxic towns,” Siegel wrote in an email to The Star. “Without any standard way to measure that, I can’t say that it’s the worst.”

However, Siegel is quick to acknowledge the profound amount of money spent on Anniston cleanup. “It’s also one of a handful of communities where the government has spent multiple billions of dollars addressing hazardous wastes.”

Thus, this is the next phase of Anniston’s struggle: first cleanup of people and property; next cleanup of worldwide perception. In the literary sense, it may be more difficult to repair the city’s image, to dissolve the “Toxic Town” moniker like an Alka-Seltzer in a glass of water, than to repair the physical damage — regardless of how much money has been spent.

Garrett’s voice rises when you ask him about that moniker. He sounds angry. “It really irritated me severely when those two words (Toxic Town) were put out there. It really was not fair to Anniston, Alabama, at all.”

Yet, Garrett, a Cullman native with deep roots in our part of Alabama, sounds the same voice of hope as does the former mayor, the water board director and others — that the $3.2 billion isn’t a guarantee of redemption or rebirth, but it has marked the course for the possible, if not the probable.

“When I was a kid coming into town, it always said ‘Model City’ (on the signs). Why can’t we get back to that? What we have done here is put us in a positive light to get us off of those lists.”

Phillip Tutor is The Star’s commentary editor.

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