The Debate Over the Newport Chemical Depot

Aug 30, 2011

Walking around the Newport Chemical Depot is pretty mundane.  There isn’t much to see outside of a few abandon buildings.  Some of them look unkempt and shoddy while a few others could be serviceable with a paint job and some cleaning.

In some areas the grass and weeds reach hip-high and the only noises that can be heard are birds chirping and the wind blowing.

The seven-thousand-acre development in Vermillion County that was once the home to U-S Army production facilities is now desolate, but Jack Fenoglio believes that can change.

He is the President of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority and wants to help attract business to the site.

“I would hope that there are at least a couple large, industrial operations going with several hundred employees each,” he said.  “We have set aside, at least on paper, some areas for smaller commercial enterprises. ”

The Depot hasn’t seen much activity since the U-S Army dismantled its facility several years ago.  It was used for more than 60-years for production of the VX nerve agent and heavy water for the atomic bomb during World War Two.  In the 1970’s it was used to manufacture TNT explosives.

Now the Depot is leased mostly as farm land.

With no need for the property, the Army is transferring it to Vermillion County and Fenoglio thinks it’s an opportunity for the area to prosper economically.

“Our primary goal was the creation of jobs that had been at the Depot on a rollercoaster-type patter.  We want to provide jobs that will be there for 30, 40, 50 years,” he said.

At its peak in the 1950s, there were about 10,000 people working at the Depot.

Now, Vermillion County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state at nearly 10-percent, so it’s no surprise that there is support for using the site to create new jobs. 

But there is a problem.  Actually, there are 336 problems.

That’s the number of acres on the Depot that contain restored black soil tall grass prairie.  It’s the largest black-soil prairie site in Indiana and there are some local residents that want to ensure it’s not affected by business developments.

“A 336-acre prairie is a very, very small percentage of 7,000 acres and that could be protected very easily.”

That’s Phil Cox.  He is the conservation chair for the Wabash Valley Audubon Society.

Cox wants more of a commitment from the Reuse Authority to protect the black-soil prairie land from being destroyed.

The 336 acres on the northwest side of the Depot is home for all kinds of wildlife including the endangered Indiana Bat.  Cox says those species existence is jeopardized by the industrial development plans.

“If the wildlife would die, there would be no habitat, that’s the main problem with having wildlife survive,” said Cox.  “Everything either gets plowed up or paved over.  They have nowhere to live so they can’t sustain themselves.”

But, Fenoglio says from a business perspective, it’s not sound to make any guarantees.

“There is flexibility in there because we don’t know who wants to come in and provide jobs,” he said. 

“If they want to sit there and spend their unemployment check and watch the birds fly through the prairie grass, well, if a big company comes in and wants to provide several hundred jobs and they say ‘ok, we’ve looked at the land, we’d like to put our plant right here,’ well that’s fine except right in the middle of where you want to put your big tanks there is some prairie grass.  It would be a deal killer.”

Lenny Siegel is the Executive Director for the Center for Public Environmental Oversight based in California.

He visited the Depot a number of times and published a report on the site in June.

He thinks there needs to be compromise from both sides.

“What you really want to do is create political pressure and try to come up with a solution that doesn’t fly in the face of the other plans of the Reuse Authority,” he said.  “Don’t try to put the prairie against economic development.  Figure out a way for them to happen together.  Restored prairie has its economic value. ”

Fenoglio and the Reuse Authority insist that they will try and put the black soil prairie as one of the last places used for commercial development.

He also says there are preliminary plans to create a wildlife area in a different location.

“We’ve been working with DNR and several other conservation groups to develop a plan and an area primarily in the north side to make that a nature preserve,” he said.  “We are still working out the details of how that would work. ”

But Cox isn’t buying into the idea.  He says if the Reuse Authority decides to develop the black soil prairie for industrial use, there needs to be more of a promise to give the Depot’s wildlife a new home.

“It’s just a proposal at this point and nothing has been agreed upon,” said Cox.  “If you plow up this prairie or pave over the existing prairie there is no habitat for animals that live in this prairie to go to.  The wildlife would just die because they would have no place to go. ”

The two sides have been battling over the issue for several years, but the contention is rising with the Reuse Authority expecting to gain ownership of the Depot by September at the latest.