updated 2/5/2004 4:18:57 PM ET 2004-02-05T21:18:57

The Army shut down its Alabama chemical weapons incinerator after an alarm indicated a possible leak of a small amount of deadly sarin nerve agent inside a main building.

No one was injured, and the Army said Thursday there was no threat to the surrounding community in Anniston. It was unclear when operations would resume.

The incinerator was destroying rockets filled with gelled or crystallized GB nerve agent — also called sarin — when the alarm sounded Wednesday afternoon.

Officials were trying to determine the source of the chemical agent that caused the alarm, which went off in an observation corridor outside a room housing equipment used in the incineration process.

The alarm indicated a “minute” amount of chemical agent in the area, the Army said in a statement. Sarin is extremely dangerous; just a drop can kill.

Workers put on protective masks and evacuated the corridor, located inside the building that houses the incinerator’s three furnaces. No agent left the building, said incinerator spokesman Mike Abrams.

Location elevates situation's gravity
Alarms have occasionally sounded at the site since it began destroying weapons six months ago, but Abrams said officials viewed the latest alarm as more serious because of its location. Follow-up testing indicated the alarm mechanism worked properly.

“I am not aware of another situation that has put us on edge like this did,” he said.

The alarm sounded at 4:39 p.m. CDT, and incinerator operators notified emergency officials at the Anniston Army Depot about three hours later after assessing the situation. The depot, in turn, notified county and state emergency management officials.

David Ford, a spokesman with the Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, said area officials learned about the alarm about four hours after it sounded. But the delay “seems appropriate” because the Army had to confirm the presence of sarin before issuing any notification, and no chemical agent escaped the building, Ford said.

Some 35,000 people live within nine miles of the incinerator, in east Alabama about 50 miles east of Birmingham. The incinerator is the Army’s first to be located in a populated area.

About 2,254 tons of Cold War-era chemical weapons were stored at the depot for more than 40 years in earth-covered, concrete-reinforced bunkers. The incinerator has destroyed 17,919 rockets and 19,437 gallons of liquid GB since it began operations last year.

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