Completion of VX Neutralization Means Many Things to Valley
By Deb Kelly, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.
Jul. 20–For more than 40 years, one of the last and deadliest remnants of the Cold War — 2.5-million pounds of VX — has been sitting quietly in carbon steel barrels in Vermillion County, part of a stockpile of chemical weapons the United States has been trying to dispose of for more than a decade.
As of the end of this month, the last of that substance will be eliminated, as a three-year neutralization process comes to a close.
The Newport Chemical Depot, where the deadly nerve agent VX was produced in the 1960s, has been disposing of the agent since May 2005. Currently, more than 97 percent of the stockpile has been neutralized.
The completion of the project will mean different things to various people. For employees at the Depot, many of whom have spent the better part of their careers at the facility, the end is bittersweet. The citizens of west-central Indiana who have feared the worst in the event of a spill, leak or explosion are beginning to feel a sense of relief.
For the facility itself, time will tell how the secure, 7,000-acre property will be used in the future.
The VX stockpile was produced at the Newport complex between 1961 and 1968 as a weapon in case of a nuclear or other attack. VX — the most toxic nerve agent ever created, according to the Council on Foreign Relations — was never used by the American military. There have been no deaths from VX at the Depot.
Newport is one of nine chemical agent disposal or destruction installations in the United States. The others are in Colorado, Kentucky, Alabama, Arkansas, Maryland, Utah, Oregon and off the coast of Hawaii. Of the overall amount of chemical weapons created and stored in the United States, the stockpile at Newport represented about 4 percent. The facility in Utah had the largest percentage of chemical weapons stored, with 44 percent of the U.S. stockpile. Only the Johnston Atoll Chemical Agent Disposal System, off the coast of Hawaii, has completed destruction of its chemical weapons. Several other facilities are in the midst of disposal efforts, and some have not yet begun.
Of all the locations, the chemical VX was produced only at Newport.
The facility at Newport was first established in 1941 as the Wabash River Ordnance Works, and was intended to produce explosives for U.S. involvement in World War II. More than 50 homes and farm sites, a school and two churches were displaced when the War Department established the site.
At its largest, the installation was almost 22,000 acres in size and extended from the Wabash River to the Illinois state line. Currently, the 7,000 acres occupied include more than 3,000 acres of farmland leased out to area growers, nearly 2,000 acres of forest, 291 acres of restored prairie grass and 213 acres of wetlands. The disposal facility, itself, occupies just 15 acres.
The government staff employed at the depot includes two soldiers and 21 civilians employed by the Army. In addition, the site contractor, Mason & Hanger Corp., and the systems contractor, Parsons Corp., each employ hundreds of civilians.
Newport Chemical Depot is the largest employer in Vermillion County, with just under 1,000 workers.
VX is a member of the organo-phosphate family and is similar to pesticides. VX is an oily liquid that is straw-colored and has no odor. It was designed by the military to be a skin-contact hazard. Rockets, bombs and spray tanks were filled with chemical agent in the 1960s. Those weapons were then shipped by rail to various U.S. defense sites.
If VX contacts the skin, it rapidly affects the nervous system by interfering with signals sent from the brain to vital organs. If left untreated, convulsions and death will result within minutes or hours.
In 1992, the United Nations drafted the Chemical Weapons Convention, an arms-control agreement that outlaws the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. The agreement was ratified in 1997. A deadline of 2004 was set for destruction to be complete.
During the 1990s, the topic of VX disposal caused much controversy and concern among citizens in nearby communities.
The Army initially planned to incinerate the agent, as it planned to do at several other U.S. storage sites. The Army told Congress that there was not sufficient time to develop alternative technologies for destruction to meet the 2004 deadline.
When the plan to incinerate was announced in 1994, many citizens were alarmed.
Education classes had been planned to teach the citizens of the tiny hamlet of Newport and surrounding towns how to seal themselves inside their houses and apartments — “shelter in place” — in the event of an accident such as a VX plume resulting from a fire/explosion. Fearful families were concerned that they would be trapped in the town, because the only route to leave would be past the facility.
The Army and local response agencies created the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program (CSEPP) to help educate and protect the community in the unlikely event of an accident involving the VX.
An alternative — neutralization — was developed in direct response to public outcry over the prospect of incineration. Destruction deadlines were extended to 2007, and now, to 2012.
The neutralization process thoroughly mixes the agent with heated sodium hydroxide and water to create a less-toxic, caustic wastewater solution, similar to drain cleaner.
The process involves moving the one-ton steel containers of VX from storage to the disposal facility. The VX then is drained from the container into steel reactors, where neutralization, a process involving both manual and remote-control manipulation, occurs. The byproduct of the process, called hydrolysate or caustic wastewater, is held in special tanks before being tested at an on-site lab to confirm the VX has been destroyed. The wastewater then is stored onsite before being shipped to a processing facility in Texas.
Safety and Security
Safety has been a concern at the Depot ever since the earliest days of the VX program. Even before technology made possible highly sensitive monitors to test air for VX vapors, the Army used other methods.
Clyde Cutrell, 87, of Newport, worked at the facility for more than three decades, from the 1940s until 1985, with a break while he served a stint in Europe in World War II. At Newport, Cutrell inspected containers of VX nerve agent for leaks.
Part of Cutrell’s job in the early years was to help warn those on the receiving end of VX shipments of potential leaks in train box cars.
“When they was shipping that VX out … they used to put rabbits in those box cars,” Cutrell said during a recent interview. “And if them rabbits wasn’t alive, they’d know there was a leak in there.”
VX has not been shipped since 1969, and since the days of rabbit warning systems, the Army has placed more than 70 air-monitoring stations in and around the facility to detect extremely low levels of agent, according to Jeffrey Brubaker, site project manager. More than 4,400 samples are taken daily, and the monitors continuously sniff the air, then give a reading within minutes. Each monitor is calibrated daily. If agent vapor is detected, sirens sound to alert those in the facility. The sensitive sirens have sounded false alarms after picking up minute traces of other airborne particles such as hairspray.
Employees who work in and around the facility are required to carry M40 chemical gas masks in case a warning is raised. Visitors are required to carry “escape hoods” while near the facility. In addition, depot personnel responsible for handling VX carry pharmaceutical antidote kits, with Atropine and 2-PAM Chloride, which in combination counteract the symptoms of VX exposure.
As with any military defense program, secrecy and security have characterized the program since the early days.
For more than 20 years, to work at Newport was to keep quiet about what kind of work went on there. It was not until the mission was declassified in the 1990s that the truth about the chemical depot became widely known, according to Mona Harney, operations manager for Mason & Hanger. Harney, who has been at the Depot since 1981, said when people asked, employees would simply say, “I work at Newport.”
“It’s like saying, ‘I work at Columbia House,’ or ‘I work at Bemis.’ No questions asked, really,” she said. “The biggest change came in 1994, when I had to stop keeping it a secret and start educating everyone about it.”
Cutrell, who met his wife at the facility, and who spent the majority of his working life there, said the mission was supposed to be kept quiet by employees.
“We was supposed to keep it quiet,” Cutrell said, “but it got out,” he added.
After Sept. 11, security at Newport became even more critical, according to Terry Arthur, public information officer for the Depot.
Before the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington D.C., the VX barrels were stored inside a metal building on the Newport property.
Arthur said on the day of the attacks, there was an immediate sense of fear at the facility when it was determined that one plane was still unaccounted for.
“We had never considered airplanes to be projectiles,” she said. All of a sudden, the vulnerability of the stockpile became obvious.
Shortly after that, construction began on eight partially underground bunkers — called “igloos,” they were covered with four feet of gravel — for storage of VX containers. The airspace above the facility was designated a no-fly zone.
Today, only two of the eight “igloos” have any VX remaining — the last few containers that will be disposed of in the coming weeks.
Cutrell, who worked in the facility before so many precautions were in place, said the danger never bothered him.
“It didn’t worry me,” he said. “I prayed to the good Lord, and when he wanted me to go, that’s when I’d go.”
The Newport facility is currently undergoing a closure process under the congressionally mandated Base Realignment and Closure program — part of which is the disposal of VX. Closure also includes the dismantling of the neutralization facility.
The facility first will be decontaminated, and processing areas will be dismantled in accordance with environmental permits.
In preparation for closure, the Army has been conducting a rigorous environmental program, focusing on soil and water remediation.
The hydrolysate transport mission will be completed in September. The International Chemical Weapons Treaty will be closed out into the fall. Depot closure activities, including decontamination and dismantling, could continue until 2011.
Terry Arthur, who has spent the past 15 years working with the public and the media as a liaison for the facility, said, “I can’t believe it’s actually here. I came here 15 years ago, and they told me I’d be here five years.”
Harney, who has spent the past 27 years at the Depot, said, “It’s been difficult to watch, knowing the end is coming. I love this place,” she added. “I hate to see it go, and not just because it’s a job. We’re a family.”
Arthur added, “It’s really kind of bittersweet, watching this chapter in history close.”
Deb Kelly can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Coming tomorrow: The Tribune-Star looks into land re-use at the Depot, the impact on the economy of Vermillion County as operations wind down, and community reaction to VX elimination and the Depot closure.
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