August 17, 2008

Army Destroys Deadly Weapon Last of Ind.-Stored Nerve Agent Gone

By RICK CALLAHAN Associated Press writer

INDIANAPOLIS - An Army contractor has finished three years of work on destroying a deadly nerve agent stored in western Indiana and now is moving ahead to dismantle the equipment built for the billion-dollar project, officials said Monday.

The final container of VX nerve agent was destroyed late Friday at the Newport Chemical Depot, eliminating the last of about 275,000 gallons of the nerve agent the site had stored, said Jeff Brubaker, the Army's site manager.

For decades, the site about 70 miles west of Indianapolis had loomed in residents' concerns because it housed a Cold War-era chemical weapon so deadly only a tiny droplet can kill a human.

"Today is a great day for our workers, for the Newport community and for our country. We've safely eliminated the VX and basically all of the threat to the local community, so it's a tremendous accomplishment," Brubaker said.

VX destruction began at Newport in May 2005 under an international treaty requiring the United States to destroy its chemical weapons stockpile.

The Newport depot housed the nation's only VX production facility until 1969, when President Nixon halted the manufacture of chemical weapons. That left the depot saddled with a large stockpile of VX stored in hardened steel vessels initially stored outside but later moved to special concrete bunkers.

The Army at first proposed incinerating the VX, but strong local opposition to that proposal prompted the military to instead adopt a chemical neutralization process that destroys the VX's chemical bonds and produces a caustic wastewater byproduct.

The disposal of that waste

sparked controversy when the Army signed a contract with Veolia Environmental Services to ship the waste some 900 miles to a plant in Port Arthur, Texas, for incineration. New Jersey and Ohio earlier had resisted plans to dispose of the waste there.

The Chemical Weapons Working Group, the Sierra Club and other groups challenged the Veolia plan unsuccessfully in federal court, arguing that the waste, called hydrolysate, contains more residual VX and other toxic byproducts than the Army maintains.

Brubaker said the last of the hydrolysate will be shipped from Newport to Port Arthur by the end of September.

Craig Williams of the Berea, Ky.-based Chemical Weapons Working Group said Monday that the organization still strongly opposes the incineration of the hydrolysate waste and will "continue to resist that at any other sites the Army is proposing to do that at."

But he said the group is pleased that the last of the Newport's VX had been destroyed.

"It's a good day for Indiana, it's a good day for the United States and it's good day for the world to get one step closer to ridding ourselves of these heinous weapons," Williams said.

Brubaker said that now that the last of the Cold War-era VX is gone, Army contractor Parsons Technology will switch to dismantling and removing the equipment used to destroy it at the Newport site. That is expected to take 18 to 24 months to complete.

That will include recycling about 50 remaining steel containers that held the VX.

Brubaker said the Army will receive credit for destroying the last of the VX at Newport once the last of the VX wastewater is shipping to Veolia's Port Arthur plant.

As of May, Newport's VX destruction project had cost $1.2 billion, including the cost of the two large buildings where the VX is neutralized by being heated in chemical reactors.

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