NEWPORT, Ind. – In a cavernous, pipe-filled structure known simply as the Utility Building (search), Army contractors are getting ready to destroy a Cold War-era concoction so lethal it could kill untold millions.
After years of controversy, workers will begin chemically neutralizing 1,269 tons of the ultra-deadly nerve agent VX (search) this summer as part of a plan to eliminate the nation's chemical weapons stockpile.
"One drop the size of George Washington's eye on a quarter is enough to kill a healthy, 180-pound male. It's the most lethal chemical on the planet," said Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group (search), a Kentucky-based watchdog organization.
But a dispute over what will become of the project's wastewater could leave the rural community about 70 miles west of Indianapolis stuck with the nerve agent's legacy.
Opposition from Dayton, Ohio, residents scuttled the Army's plan to dispose of up to 4 million gallons of nerve agent wastewater, or hydrolysate (search), at a plant there. Now, plans to truck the waste to Deepwater, N.J., for treatment and disposal at a DuPont Co. (search) plant are in doubt amid opposition in New Jersey and Delaware.
The Army plans to heat the VX, a liquid with the consistency of mineral oil, in chemical reactors to destroy its structure. Army officials liken the resulting hydrolysate to liquid drain cleaner, and say it will contain no detectable VX at sampling levels of 20 parts per billion.
Although VX was never used by the American military in combat, there have been human exposures — but no deaths — in the United States. Its lethal potential was demonstrated in 1968 when an aerial spraying test of VX at Utah's Dugway Proving Grounds (search) went awry, killing about 6,000 grazing sheep.
The VX stockpile was produced at the 7,000-acre Newport complex between 1961 and 1968 as a doomsday deterrent. For years after production ended, containers of the nerve agent sat rusting in a field, apparently regarded by the depot's workers as just part of the landscape.
"They used to eat lunch on top of the containers," said Lt. Col. Joseph Marquart, Newport's commander. "We don't do that anymore."
The containers now sit in heavily guarded concrete bunkers built after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Since President Nixon halted the manufacture of chemical weapons in 1969, about 31,000 tons of VX, sarin (search) and mustard nerve agent have been stored at Newport and seven other chemical depots in Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kentucky, Maryland, Oregon and Utah.
Destruction is under way at four of the eight in compliance with the international Chemical Weapons Convention treaty (search).
At the Newport depot, Army contractors will open the first of 1,690 VX-filled steel containers late this summer inside a building from which no air escapes without being heavily filtered. Security cameras keep watch, and air monitoring equipment scans for trouble.
Inside, workers will drain the 6 1/2-by-3-foot containers in airtight glovebox chambers, with technicians outside the reinforced glass using thick gloves to attach a special pumping device.
The VX will then be transferred to a steel reactor where it will be neutralized by adding it over a 36-minute period to a mixture of water and sodium hydroxide (search) heated to about 195 degrees. Two sets of paddles will agitate the mixture to complete the reaction.
Workers will carry a VX antidote in case of an accidental release.
Neutralizing all the VX should take about 2 1/2 years. But where it will go from there is unclear.
DuPont wants to dump treated hydrolysate into the Delaware River. But fears that the chemical could ruin decades of river cleanup led Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner and New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey to send the Army a letter of protest.
"There's too many questions," said Gregory Patterson, Minner's spokesman.
DuPont spokesman Anthony Farina said the company will not accept an Army contract to handle the hydrolysate until the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (search) and the Environmental Protection Agency (search) complete studies of DuPont's plans.
Because of the uncertainties, the Army intends to buy 50 5,000-gallon tanks that will allow it to store at Newport about 240,000 gallons of hydrolysate — the amount expected to be produced in the first six months.
Sara Morgan, a teacher who lives a few miles from the depot, is glad the neutralization will soon begin. She led a campaign that forced the Army to drop its original plans to incinerate Newport's VX, a method some feared could release toxins into the air.
Yet she believes the project's waste should stay at Newport — not sent off to become New Jersey and Delaware's problem.
"The citizens of the area where this is going to be treated should be accepting of it," she said. "I don't think it should be shoved down their throats."