Weapon of mass destruction stored in Newport, Ind.
If inspectors in Iraq get tired of their so-far fruitless effort to find weapons of mass destruction, they can always look about 85 miles west of Indianapolis in Vermillion County. There is enough VX — a deadly chemical weapon — in Newport, Ind., to obliterate humanity. Repeatedly. However, the U.S. Army is beginning the process of demilitarizing the deadly substance. Under the Chemical Weapons Convention treaty, ratified in 1997, the U.S. must destroy its entire arsenal of chemical weapons and close all production facilities by 2007. Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) obtained federal funds to speed the process so that the destruction of the Newport VX occurs ahead of the 2007 deadline. According to a May 2003 statement released by Bayh’s office announcing $174 million in additional funding for the neutralization, the senator then expected the process to be complete by April of this year. But Bayh press secretary Meg Keck told NUVO the timetable has changed, and Newport Chemical Depot officials now say the process will not start until this summer at the earliest. “The Army has faced some unforeseen setbacks that prompted a delay in the original schedule,” Beck said. “However, Senator Bayh will continue to pressure the Army to begin the neutralization as soon as possible.” Beck said the Depot is “safe and secure” from terrorist attack, according to the Army’s recent inspection. Contrary to popular opinion, the VX is not a gas, but a liquid. “It’s more like a motor oil,” said Newport Chemical Depot spokesman Dennis Lindsey. He said the liquid is stored in several canisters of carbonized steel. VX is among the deadliest nerve agents ever created, with just a drop able to kill within minutes. While Lindsey said the Depot does not release to the public how much VX liquid is stored there, an Army newsletter reports there is more than 1,200 tons of the agent stored in Newport. “All the VX in the U.S. arsenal was made at Newport,” Lindsey said. During the Cold War in the mid 20th century, the Army shipped munitions such as land mines, rockets and spray tanks to Newport via railroad, where the munitions were filled with VX and shipped to U.S. defense plants worldwide. President Richard Nixon halted production of all chemical weapons in 1968 and declared a moratorium on shipping in 1969. The final two batches were left in 1,690 steel ton containers. Each container can hold about 170 gallons of liquid, although the Newport containers have a layer of nitrogen gas that occupies a 10 percent void. Lindsey said security at the facility was “extremely heavy.” The Depot is surrounded by a barbed wire fence, with armed guards patrolling the perimeter. The containment area, where the liquid is stored, is surrounded by a double-fence. Lindsey said “heavily armed” guards are authorized to use “necessary force” to prevent a security breach. There is a no-fly zone in place over the Depot. The demilitarization process is scheduled to begin in the summer. According to a public information handout from the Depot, the neutralization is a four-step process called caustic hydrolysis. First, workers drain the agent into a holding tank via a specially designed sealed glove box system. Next, the agent is neutralized by hot sodium hydroxide. This forms a caustic wastewater, hydrolysate. Hydrolsate is extremely caustic and can cause severe burns. It has a Ph of 13, meaning it is a base comparable in strength to industrial-strength drain cleaners. The wastewater is then tested to make sure the VX is neutralized. In step three, the hydrolysate is transported off site for bio-treatment. (Published reports say the Army is considering shipping the neutralized nerve agent to a DuPont waste treatment plant in New Jersey for discharge into the Delaware River, but area environmentalists have expressed opposition.) Finally, the containers are decontaminated and disposed of. The United States and Russia are the only two countries that have admitted to possessing VX, although the nerve agent was developed by the British. In 2003, in a now famously discredited State of the Union address, President Bush accused Iraq of possessing VX and other weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps he meant to say Indiana.