After 69 years producing explosives, heavy water used in the production of nuclear weapons and as the sole site to produce the deadly VX nerve agent, the Newport Chemical Depot is closing.
The U.S. Army will officially vacate the site on July 18, but on Thursday held a deactivation ceremony demonstrating that all activities of destroying and removing VX required to close the depot, located about 32 miles north of Terre Haute and three miles south of Newport, have been completed.
“As of today, we are over 74 percent of the way nationwide to ridding this country of weapons of mass destruction known as chemical weapons. That is quite a statement,” said Carmen J. Spencer, deputy assistant secretary of the Army responsible for the destruction of chemical weapons nationwide.
“That is a tribute to the people of Newport and the community here,” Spencer said.
Conrad F. Whyne, director of the U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency, said the Newport “installation and work force contributed greatly to our national defense. We mark the end of a great tradition of dedication and selfless service to our nation for both this installation and the generations of Americans who worked here.”
Whyne said from the depot’s “production of heavy water for use in the Manhattan Project to its recent elimination of the bulk-reacts nerve agent stockpile, the major contributions of this installation and its work force made to national defense cannot be denied. I say mission complete and congratulations.”
Newport produced all of the VX nerve agent for the U.S. military from 1961 to 1968, said Tom Wilkey, facility manager for Mason & Hanger Corp., part of the Day & Zimmermann Mason & Hanger Group, which operates several ordnance facilities for the government. Destruction of VX began on May 5, 2005, and was completed on Aug. 8, 2008.
Wilkey first came to Newport in February 1976 as an industrial engineer working for Uniroyal Inc.
“When I first came here, the VX was stored out in an open field, a gravel-based parking lot, with barbed wire fence around it and some rickety old wooden stanchions on each end that looked over it,” Wilkey said.
VX cylinders were then rehabbed, with the VX tested, and moved into a warehouse.
“After that, because of tornadoes and such, we strapped the cylinders together in units and put in cameras to monitor them. Then after 9/11, they were moved into [newly built] underground [concrete] igloos,” Wilkey said, “as more importance was made on [VX] and how involved we were worldwide.”
Terry Arthur, the depot’s public affairs officer, said she saw many changes during her 17-year stint at the depot.
“I have been here a lot longer than I expected. I came here for a five-year mission and have been here 17 years. We have gone through some real mission changes in the time I have been here partly because of the disposal operation we went through and also because of the changes that occurred as a result of 9/11 [terrorist attacks],” Arthur said.
Shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, about 200 U.S. Army soldiers were based at the chemical depot to guard the VX nerve agent. In addition, the skies over the depot, which had some restrictions, became a no-fly zone
One sign that the depot is being decommissioned is that the restricted no-fly zone was removed about two months ago, Arthur said.
“We had the deadliest nerve agent on Earth here. All of the VX produced for U.S. defense purposes was made here at Newport. We made it, stored it and destroyed what was left here without ever having an incident where anyone was harmed or killed. We’re pretty proud of that legacy,” said Arthur, who now plans to retire and remain in the Terre Haute area.
The depot in the 1940s and early 1950s employed up to 10,000 people, but now only about 80 people are onsite. That will soon decrease to two Army employees and about two dozen contract employees until the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority assumes ownership of the property in July, Arthur said.
Jack Fenoglio, president of the Reuse Authority, said developing the 7,000-acre site will be a challenge, but also an opportunity for jobs.
“I think it is a big challenge because of the general economic situation of the country, but the opportunities are here that if somebody is looking to build a new place, we have so many advantages here it would be hard to pass this place up, versus somewhere else,” Fenoglio said.
One company, Telic Corp., a military service and weapons contractor, still plans to relocate military component-making equipment from Albany, Ky., to Newport, said Telic Corp. President Frank Minton, who attended the closing ceremony.
Minton announced in late 2009 that his company would create up to 500 jobs at the depot.
Fenoglio said the Reuse Authority in July could directly lease property to Telic Corp. without having to do a sublease through the federal government.
The depot opened in 1941 as the Wabash River Ordnance Works after the Army designated 22,000 acres for the site, extending from the Wabash River to the Illinois state line.
Royal Demolitions Explosive (RDX) was produced in 1942 and a heavy water plant reservoir was built from 1943 to 1944 and placed on standby status in 1946. It was reactivated in 1952 until 1957.
A chemical plant to produce VX was constructed from 1958 to 1961, with VX produced from 1961 to 1968. President Richard Nixon ceased chemical weapons production and placed a moratorium on chemical weapons shipments in 1969.
TNT was produced at the site from 1970 until 1975.
In 2005, under the Base Realignment and Closure Commission (BRAC), the depot was slated for closure by Sept. 15, 2011.
“Throughout modern history, the use and threat of chemical agents was real, but changes in policies led to decisions to eliminate chemical weapons,” said Depot commander Lt. Col. William Hibner. “Then our task was defined, to safety store and then destroy the chemical agent VX. Your efforts made that happen and now our children and grandchildren are growing up in a safer world,” Hibner said.
Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or firstname.lastname@example.org.