July 21, 2008

End of VX Neutralization Process Raises Questions About Future for Newport Chemical Depot, Workers

By Deb Kelly, The Tribune-Star, Terre Haute, Ind.

Jul. 21--For many Vermillion County residents, the loss of the deadly nerve agent VX means the loss of solid employment opportunities -- it also raises the question of what will happen to the military base where the substance has been stored for decades.

By the end of this month, the last of 1,269 tons of VX will be eliminated, and dismantling of the Newport Chemical Depot will begin. About 130 jobs will be gone permanently by September, according to the Kentucky-based operating contractor Mason & Hanger. After that, depending on the time it takes to dismantle the facility, jobs will be lost in waves. The total closure process could take until 2012, according to officials.

Since the Depot opened in 1941, it has been the largest employer in Vermillion County, employing about 1,000 workers in recent years.

Ed Cole, who serves as both the director of the Economic Development Council of Vermillion County, as well as the point of contact for the Local Redevelopment Authority, said, "The thing that is the immediate impact is the job loss. It is just going to be a tremendously bad hit for us."

Cole added, "We've always looked at that facility as about a thousand jobs. That has varied a little bit based upon whether there's construction going on, but it is just a huge impact on our local economy."

Those who are not particular about staying in Vermillion County -- or Indiana -- may find that opportunities will be available at other disposal installations around the country for experienced employees.

Of the eight other project sites in the United States, four are still in the disposal process, and two have not yet started.

Jeffrey Brubaker, project site manager at Newport Chemical Depot, said, "Some of these people have five to six years of experience and may be highly sought-after at other sites just starting the disposal process."

Parsons Corporation, the systems contractor at the depot, is working with corporate resources to look for opportunities to place personnel, according to Brubaker.

"There is a lot of concern within the community," he said.

Mona Harney, who has been employed at the Newport Chemical Depot for more than 25 years, and currently is the operations manager for Mason & Hanger, said it is very hard to believe the project is ending.

Brubaker said many of the jobs at the depot were expected to last only a few years at the beginning, but as different types of disposal were debated, and as deadlines were extended, the jobs continued.

"A lot of military jobs, the employees know the projects are short-term, and when the project ends, the job ends, and you move on," he said.

Harney said, "When I started in '81, they said two years. We've all heard it so many times -- it doesn't seem possible now."

When asked what she plans to do after her job is gone, Harney said, "I have no clue. I'm going to stay here until they tell me to leave."

Cole added, "It's more of an inevitability -- it's been such a long, long process, the chemical depot's been talking about closing for 20 years. It's been really hard for people to realize it is a reality."

For now, officials like Cole are working with various entities to try and find possible alternatives for workers as the closure process at the depot winds down.

"We've tried very hard to work with all of the local officials when it comes to when the workers out there begin to be laid off, or jobs begin to be eliminated," he said. "We've worked very hard to get WorkOne and West Central Indiana Economic Development District involved. If there's any way they can find anything that's local and help to maintain our population, that's our goal."

Cole added, "It's a sad situation. [The chemical depot] pays very well and the benefits are good. These are tough, tough jobs for us to replace."

One of the ways Cole hopes to improve the outlook for former Newport Chemical Depot workers is through the Local Redevelopment Authority, as the surplus land at the site becomes available for reuse.

"Our number one goal is to get investment and jobs," Cole said. "We really want to work to replace those jobs as quickly as possible, and ... we really hope to market that property."

Cole said that once the land is designated as "surplus" by the federal government -- after the facility is dismantled and environmental checks are conducted -- the LRA will begin receiving economic adjustment funds that will allow the hiring of a consulting firm to look at all of the possibilities for the land and how it can be reused.

As for any environmental concerns going forward, the 7,000 acres that make up the site of the chemical depot are more than 90 percent free of any environmental issues, Cole said. Currently, 3,000 acres are used as farm land, nearly 2,000 are forested, and another 500 consist of wetlands and restored prairie grasses.

"We're looking at only 10 percent or less, about 500 acres, and even on those 500 acres there's only varying degrees of environmental concern. We're very lucky in that regard, because environmentally it has been maintained very well," Cole said.

According to materials produced by the Newport Chemical Depot, the Army is conducting a rigorous environmental program, focusing on soil and water remediation, in addition to maintaining and protecting natural resources for future use of depot land.

Beyond employment concerns and ongoing use of the land, the closing of the depot is expected to have a large impact on the community of Newport.

Home to fewer than 1,000 citizens, the town of Newport consists of a town square with a courthouse and a few storefronts.

One of those shops is Gidget's Market, a combination convenience store and lunch spot that has served many of the employees who work at the chemical depot for 10 years.

"I get a lot of business from there," Gidget Hall, the owner of the market, said during a recent interview. "That's gonna hurt."

She has no negative feelings toward the plant and said it will be strange to see it go.

"I think when you grow up with it, it doesn't bother you like it does some," she said. "It's always been there. I think a lot of people associate Newport with the plant."

When asked what she thought it might be like in Newport after the chemical depot is gone, Gidget said simply, "I think it will be really weird."

Deb Kelly can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or [email protected]


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