The 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not burn chemical weapons
Written by Pamela Cheney
October 2003

Pamela Cheney

On Saturday, Aug. 16, I was at a protest rally in Alabama. There were fiery chants, passionate speakers and lots of people—young and old, black and white—decrying unfair policies and a biased court system.

It was not, however, a rally about the controversial Ten Commandments monument in Montgomery. Instead, it was a rally to bring attention to the burning of chemical weapons in my home community of Calhoun County, Ala. "Thou shalt not burn chemical weapons" is the commandment we were shouting to our state and federal governments.

Only one week prior, despite more than 12 years of strong opposition in the streets, in the courts and in the halls of government buildings, the U.S. Army started incinerating chemical weapons stored at the Army Depot in Anniston, Ala. According to government documents, the burning will last 10-to-12 years.

What's wrong with burning chemical weapons? Everything. Anyone who has ever circled a campfi re or heated with a wood stove knows that burning results in lots of smoke and ash. Incinerators are no exception.

The Anniston facility, by the Army's own account, will release thousands of pounds of toxins into the environment. Smokestack emissions—laced with PCBs, dioxins, mercury, lead and chemical agents—are being pumped into a community already reeling from decades of chemical dumping due to the effects of a Monsanto plant once located there.

Around the country, at the Army's other chemical weapons incinerators, chemical agents have been released into the environment at least 18 times. A weapons incinerator in Utah, after seven years of operations, was just found to have exceeded regulatory limits on the release of toxic PCBs.

Once that stuff comes out of the stack, there's no taking it back.

Yet the Army never allowed Anniston's residents to consider options other than incineration, even though safer alternatives are readily available. At four other chemical weapons sites in the United States—which contain the same chemical weapons as those stored in Anniston—a process that involves a lowtemperature, neutralization method is destroying lethal chemical agents without releasing toxins into the environment. While those communities are breathing a sigh of relief, Anniston residents are worried about breathing at all.

True, local residents are supposed to feel safer in the event of a chemical catastrophe, because the government is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on gas masks, plastic sheeting, duct tape and air fi lters to allay the fears of local residents who live near the incinerator.

But we want the Army to address the risk of chemical agent emissions at the root cause, by using a weapons disposal method that will prevent the uncontrolled release of toxic chemicals into Anniston's air and water, and into the lungs and bloodstream of its vulnerable population.

While some shout about the right to display a concrete monument of God's Word, those who live in the shadow of this incinerator are doing God's work. They are claiming their right to a healthy environment and a safer future for their children. Our state and federal governments still have an opportunity to protect the residents of Anniston and the surrounding area by utilizing a safer method to destroy these weapons. Please join us in demanding that our government heed this command.

The Rev. Pamela Cheney, a native of Calhoun County, Ala., is an organizer with the UCC's Justice and Peace Action Network. She also serves as minister of Christian education at Euclid Avenue Congregational UCC in Cleveland. As I See It is a column to help readers become better acquainted with UCC leaders.
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