updated 3/9/2007 6:09:10 PM ET 2007-03-09T23:09:10

A chemical weapons incinerator destroyed the last of nearly 36,000 rockets carrying the deadly nerve agent VX, part of a huge munitions stockpile that dated back to the Cold War.

The rockets were considered the most hazardous part of the stockpile because they were loaded with explosive propellant and VX, which can kill a person within minutes.

The incinerator at the Anniston Army Depot began operating in 2003 and destroyed the last VX rocket Thursday night, said Terry Sholin of Westinghouse Anniston, the Army's lead contractor on the project.

With the United States facing a treaty deadline of 2012 to eliminate its stockpile of chemical weapons, the incinerator will now be equipped to destroy artillery shells also loaded with VX, Sholin said.

The incinerator also is to be used to destroy tons of mustard gas munitions stored at the depot, about 50 miles east of Birmingham. It previously burned 142,428 weapons loaded with sarin, including more than 42,000 rockets.

Despite stiff opposition from environmental groups and other critics during construction, officials say the incinerator has operated safely. With the destruction of all the rockets, the risk posed by old weapons stored at the depot has dropped by 96 percent, according to Army estimates.

"I think the facility has performed remarkably well, and the people who are doing the job are doing remarkably well in a very high-hazard type of environment," said Tim Garrett, the Army's project manager at the incinerator.

Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a critic of the project, said he agrees that Anniston's safety record has been extremely good. He said his only concern now is that the Army does not release reports of alarms, upsets, pollution or other errors as it does at other incinerators.

"We've been asking for information out of that site for years, and we don't get anything," Williams said.

Chemical weapons also have been incinerated at other military depots.

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