Photograph by Steven Higgs

More than 400 plant species have been documented on the 336-acre black-soil prairie at the soon-to-be former Newport Chemical Depot. In addition to refusing to protect the prairie, the local reuse authority that will soon own the 7,100-acre installation is planning a coal liquefaction plant on the site about 30 miles north of Terre Haute.

Tim Maloney wasn't alone when he objected to the U.S. Army's October 2010 finding that a reuse plan for the Newport Chemical Depot would have no significant environmental impact on the Vermillion County environs. That the plan offered no protection for a rare and endangered black-soil prairie on the base wasn't even the most confounding aspect. Proposed by a local reuse authority empowered to determine the 7,100-acre base's future, the plan called for a coal-liquefaction plant on land that had been maintained largely in agricultural and natural states.

The Army's determination that a coal plant would produce no adverse environmental impacts was one of several issues the Hoosier Environmental Council's (HEC) senior policy director said rendered it "inadequate" under federal law. "This would be a major industrial facility, with potential impacts to air quality, water quality, disturbance or destruction of forest, wetlands, and prairie, and dramatic change in the nature of the property," Maloney wrote in Dec. 18, 2010, comments. He called on the Army to complete a full environmental impact statement for Newport.

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The Indiana prairie's last best chance

Maloney's comments were in response to the Army's October 2010 Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Reuse of the Newport Chemical Depot. The Army is in the process of transferring the base to a Local Reuse Authority, appointed by the Vermillion County Commissioners.
"This has been given to us, and I think it is a gift that we need to preserve for the future." - Sister Maureen Freeman, White Violet Center for Eco-Justice
The coal plant was not, in fact, an abstraction. Two months before the Army released its EA, Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced an agreement that she said laid the foundation for the depot's reuse.

"Clean Coal Refining Corporation (CCRC) and the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority (NCDRA) of Clinton, Ind., have agreed on a road map that allows CCRC to perform a feasibility study for the construction of a Direct Coal Liquefaction plant on a 1,500-acre section of the site's 7,000 plus acres," according to a Sept. 15, 2010, news release from her office.

The state's No. 2 politician called the plant a "clean-coal project" and said about 2.5 million tons of Indiana coal would be refined annually to produce about 8 million barrels of jet fuel, heating oil, diesel and utility fuel.

"This project deserves our support, " Skillman said in the release. "If built, the project would mean a $3 billion investment and jobs for 500 highly skilled Hoosiers."


Maloney's comments weren't the first from HEC on the Newport Reuse Plan. For more than two years the state's largest environmental group had allied with hundreds of other citizens, citizen groups and government agencies in asking the Army and reuse authority to protect the Newport property's unique natural features .

Since the 1960s, the World War II–era Newport base had been used to produce and store deadly VX nerve agent. In 2005 the Army decided to close Newport. In 2009 the local reuse authority gave preliminary approval to a reuse plan.
"They are not overgrown meadows. They are very, very special places." - Bill McKnight, Indiana Academy of Science
In a little over a month, that first-draft plan drew more than 400 comments from the public, said Phil Cox, the Wabash Valley Audubon Society's vice president, who spent 22 years as the natural resources administrator for the Newport property's contract manager.

"No comments were received in favor of destroying the prairie," he wrote in a timeline of Newport events. "Comments supporting saving the prairie were received from: Indiana Wildlife Federation, Pheasants Forever, Indiana Division of Fish & Wildlife, Hoosier Environmental Council, Vermillion County Soil & Water Conservation District, National Audubon Society, White Violet Center for Eco-Justice and hundreds more."

After making minor modifications with still no protection for the prairie, the reuse authority held a public hearing on Nov. 19, 2009. Nearly half the 54 citizens attending spoke, for the record. Twenty-one spoke in favor of preserving the prairie, and the other two didn't mention it, wrote Cox, who is also vice president for development of the Ouabache Land Conservancy.

Sister Maureen Freeman, from the White Violet Center for Eco-Justice at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, told the authority that her center had been unsuccessful in its efforts to restore prairie land to Indiana. "It is not easy," she said. "This has been given to us, and I think it is a gift that we need to preserve for the future."

Bill McKnight, from the Indiana Academy of Science, likewise called the prairie a gift. "They are not overgrown meadows," he said of prairies. "They are very, very special places."

Terre Haute resident and IU School of Medicine faculty member Mike Lannoo agreed. Many combat veterans come back with wounds that aren't always physical, he said. "So where do they go to get healthy? They don't go to businesses or gas stations. They don't go to ag fields, unless they are pheasant hunters. They go to nature. Tallgrass prairie would be a great gift to them. A place where they could go to heal."


In June 2010 the Indiana Wildlife Federation (IWF) passed a resolution calling on “the State of Indiana through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and any other appropriate agencies to conserve and protect the aforementioned natural resources for compatible public outdoor recreation activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, wildlife watching, mushroom hunting, hiking, biking; and to conserve and protect the agricultural lands for future agricultural production areas or future restoration areas.”

That same month, four other citizen groups – the Indiana Division of Izaak Walton League of America, the Indiana director of the National Audubon Society, the Indiana Association of Soil & Water Conservation Districts and the Indiana Sportsmen’s Roundtable – and the IWF sent letters to U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., whose staff forwarded the letters to the Department of Defense (DoD).
"The habitat on NECD represents an outstanding opportunity for restoration management for 2,000 acres of forests, 213 acres of wetlands, 3,000 acres of agricultural lands, 336 acres of the largest contiguous black soil tall grass prairie in the State." - Hoosier Chapter Sierra Club resolution
“These organizations requested that a portion of the natural areas at the Newport Chemical Depot be titled to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR)," the Lugar letter explained. "They believe that the IDNR will provide proper stewardship of this land and its wildlife for use and access by future generations.”

DNR had, in fact, submitted a Notice of Intent, formally asking the Army for control over a portion of the Newport base.

On July 7, 2010, the defense department responded. "During the screening period there were four Notices of Interest (NOI) received and evaluated for inclusion in the redevelopment plan," wrote Roland Biser, chief of the department's congressional affairs contact office. "In response to the expressions of interest, and balancing the economic needs of the community, the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority (NECDRA) established a Natural Areas Management plan."

Biser called it a "balanced redevelopment plan," with 49 percent of the base designated for economic redevelopment and the rest as open space and natural areas."

Cox, however, responded that the reuse authority denied all four NOIs, that no natural area plan had been "established,” and only 32 percent was designated as open space and natural areas. The 51 percent designated as "Natural Environment" included row crop agricultural areas that are not natural.

"Of course, the letter's statement that the conservation of natural resources is insured is incorrect, as long as there is a possibility that the majority of the prairie could be plowed under or paved over," he said.


On Nov. 8, 2010, the reuse authority published a Notice of Intent for the Finding of Suitability to Transfer the Newport property in the Daily Clintonian newspaper, giving the public until Dec. 17 to file comments.

Joining Maloney and others in commenting was the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club, which passed a resolution on Nov. 13 that outlined the Newport property's natural treasures.

"The habitat on NECD represents an outstanding opportunity for restoration management for 2,000 acres of forests, 213 acres of wetlands, 3,000 acres of agricultural lands, 336 acres of the largest contiguous black soil tall grass prairie in the State; including 176 acres of High Quality Natural Communities that are rare or critically imperiled in the State and 680 acres of Natural Areas.

"… There is documentation of over 150 species of birds, 35 species of mammals, 15 species of reptiles, 15 species of amphibians and 32 species of fish, and more than 400 species of plants (including five State watch-list species)."

Steven Higgs can be reached at .