Cache of Nerve Gas Destroyed in Indiana Town
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: You can’t see it, but the small towns of central Indiana began breathing a little easier the first week of May. A threat that had loomed silently over their towns and farmlands for the past 40 years is now being destroyed. Hospital administrator Douglas Fauber.
DOUGLAS FAUBER: Oh, it will be a sigh of relief for everyone because it is a very potent agent. However, the military’s kept it under very safe conditions. But it would be like any other potential problem out there: If it’s gone, then you can relax a little bit.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: What will be gone is America’s supply of VX nerve agent. All of the world’s deadliest chemical weapon was produced here at the Newport Chemical Depot during the 1960s. The mayor of nearby Clinton worked at the depot for ten years, but he’s ready to see the VX go.
MAYOR RON SHEPHARD: Now the day has come to where’s it’s time to destroy it and get rid of it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: A drop of VX the size of a pinhead can cause death. Now 1,269 tons of this weapon of mass destruction was set to be neutralized by the U.S. Army. Jeffrey Brubaker is a civilian employee with the army and project manager for the destruction of the VX nerve agent.
JEFFREY BRUBAKER: I can’t tell you how happy I am for the workforce here at the Newport Chemical Depot. There’s about 1,000 people that have worked very hard to achieve the successes of yesterday and today. And in addition for the citizens that live in the surrounding communities, they have waited many years for a solution.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: President Richard Nixon announced a moratorium on the production of VX in 1969, but for decades the weapon of mass destruction just sat at Newport. Then in 1997, the chemical weapons treaty was signed and the United States, along with a number of other countries, agreed to destroy all chemical weapons. But it took until May 5, 2005 to begin the destruction at Newport. Lt. Col. Scott Kimmell commands the depot.
LT. COL. SCOTT KIMMELL: It was a wonderful event. We joined a historic marker in history yesterday. Forty-four years ago yesterday, we, America, put its first man into space, and we’re quite proud of joining that historic event with our own here at the Newport Chemical Depot.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The lethal strength of the VX nerve agent first came to the public’s attention in 1968, when 6,000 sheep were killed near Dugway Proving Ground in Utah. The Army never acknowledged that it was VX that killed the sheep, but it paid $1 million in restitution to the owners of the sheep. When local Indiana residents learned in the 1980s just what was being produced at the munitions plant, they flocked to public meetings.
GENENE GREENWELL: We had no idea a nerve agent was stored there. We didn’t even know what nerve agent was.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Genene Greenwell, who now works for Vermillion County, was one of the early opponents of VX.
GENENE GREENWELL: When people started realizing what was at stake and exactly how dangerous it was, the sentiment changed and from being a minority, we went to being a majority in the county.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Sherry Russell, who lives in nearby Hillsdale, Indiana, was also one of those worried about the presence of VX in their county.
SHERRY RUSSELL: I have children and grandchildren that live close to here, and the worst scenario would be that it gets out in the atmosphere and everybody’s dead within a 500-mile radius. So you think about that when you live this close.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Anxiety about release of VX increased after 9/11, with new fears about what a terrorist attack on the depot could do. That sped up the timetable to neutralize the VX stored at Newport. And drills begun a decade earlier became more serious, says the director of Emergency Management for Vermillion County.
RAMON COLUMBO: We have sirens in place. We have radios in all the homes. We have teams trained in the event that the agent would get off base.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The closest school to the VX plant is at Montezuma, Indiana, where they hold regular mock accident drills.
SPOKESPERSON: Teachers, we’ve been notified that there’s been an incident at Newport and we need to be sealed in place. So please go to your positions and take your children to where they will be safe.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Teachers, seal off the windows and doors, lead the students to a safe area and shut off the air flow to the building. The school, as well as every home in the area, has a radio hooked into the emergency management warning system. There have been false alarms.
DENNIS OVERBERG: The first time that ever came over, probably one of the sickest feelings I ever had was that, because you knew that this could be very bad.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The Army has assured the community it is taking the utmost care to make sure there are no accidents during the destruction of the VX. This is the actual video provided by the Army of the first neutralization process. It looks like a hospital operating room and the Army said it is a painstakingly slow process. It is estimated that it will take two-and-a-half to three years to neutralize the stockpile.
The International Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty mandates all the chemical be gone by 2007. As relieved as the town of Newport is that the deadly VX agent will finally be destroyed, there’s also concern here about the economic impact on the area when the lethal chemical is finally gone and the Army shuts the plant down. Vermillion County Sheriff Hawkins, whose jail is right across the highway from the Newport Depot, is concerned about jobs that will be lost.
SHERIFF KIM HAWKINS: I think, you know, loss of jobs is kind of on everybody’s minds because down the road there’s going to be a loss of jobs, and I think that bothers the community more than the safety features of it.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Dorothy Pearman, who keeps her emergency radio right near her on the porch, also thinks about the unemployment that will come with the closing of the depot. Her late husband worked there as a guard for 13 years.
DOROTHY PEARMAN: It was our bread and butter for years, and I’m glad for everybody that is employed out there, and of course, they won’t have a job after this is all done.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That worries Pearman. She fears that nothing will be able to replace the jobs and economic stability the Newport Depot provided, though she won’t miss the fear that has lurked in the back of her mind over the last 40 years: An accident with the VX nerve agent that had the potential to destroy her world and everyone in it.