Photograph by Steven Higgs
Turkey Run State Park on the Sugar Creek is 25 miles due east of the Newport Chemical Depot. Despite announced plans to build a coal liquefaction plant on the 7,100-acre, former Army post, federal and local officials say a Newport reuse plan will have minimal impact on the environment. Economic development is their top priority.
West-central Indiana business and government officials made no mystery of their plans for the Newport Chemical Depot (NECD) from almost the moment they learned it truly would be theirs. In the summer of 2008, as the U.S. Army finished eliminating the 1,269 tons of VX nerve agent that had been manufactured and stored there for a half century, the locals declared their priorities in a Terre Haute Tribune-Star article.
“The thing that is the immediate impact is the job loss,” Ed Cole, director of the Economic Development Council of Vermillion County and point person for the Vermillion Chemical Depot Local Reuse Authority (LRA), told the newspaper in July that year. "It is just going to be a tremendously bad hit for us."
Since the 7,100-acre facility about 30 miles north of Terre Haute opened in 1941, it had been the county's largest employer, the article said. Employment had hovered around 1,000 "in recent years." County seat Newport had fewer than 1,000 residents.
About 130 jobs would be gone by September 2008, the depot's Kentucky-based operating contractor, Mason & Hanger, told the paper. After that, jobs would go in waves.
The Army in fact beat the 2012 base closure target predicted in the 2008 Tribune-Star piece. Transfer of the property to the LRA, whose five members are appointed by the Vermillion County Commissioners, will occur on Sept. 15, 2011, in Washington, according to reuse board President Jack Fenoglio.
The jobs-first tone Cole set three years ago has driven the process ever since. The depot jobs paid well, he said. "And the benefits are good. These are tough, tough jobs for us to replace.”
“Our number one goal is to get investment and jobs,” he said. “We really want to work to replace those jobs as quickly as possible, and … we really hope to market that property.”
According to the Tribune-Star, materials obtained from the Army said it was conducting a rigorous environmental program, focusing on soil and water remediation, in addition to maintaining and protecting natural resources for future use of depot land.
Cole was downright sanguine about Newport's environmental condition. More than 90 percent of the acreage was free of any environmental issues, he said, quantifying the assertion: 3,000 acres were agricultural, nearly 2,000 were forested, and another 500 were wetlands and restored prairie grasses.
“We’re looking at only 10 percent or less, about 500 acres, and even on those 500 acres there’s only varying degrees of environmental concern," Cole said. "We’re very lucky in that regard, because environmentally it has been maintained very well.”
To meet its obligations under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the Army prepared a 350-page Environmental Assessment (EA) for the Newport depot that it released in October 2010.
"The EA identifies, evaluates, and documents the environmental and socioeconomic effects of property disposal and future uses of Newport Chemical Depot," said the document, signed by Corps' Col. Steven J. Roemhilet and Rock Island Arsenal Garrison Manager Joel. G. Himsl. "A No Action Alternative is also evaluated."
The assessment evaluated five "intensity-based levels of redevelopment" for potential environmental and socioeconomic impacts, from low-intensity to high-intensity reuse. It declared the process open. "The development of the plan included an open and transparent planning process that included stakeholder interviews, public meetings, workshops and focus groups," the EA said. "Public feedback was instrumental in the development of the plan."
The EA included as an appendix a Final Reuse Plan, which the LRA prepared and passed in November 2009. Three "reuse plan concepts" were reviewed and commented on by real estate developers, economic development experts, members of the farming and natural resource communities, and the public, it said.
The reuse authority's Preferred Reuse Plan mirrored Cole's pronouncement that economic development would be the primary goal.
"Among other things, the Preferred Reuse Plan focuses on employment, commerce, economic development, and the public welfare to promote the economic use of NECD’s facilities," the EA said. "It also preserves existing agricultural uses and seeks to protect natural and cultural resources at NECD."
Given that Newport's resources consisted primarily of administrative and industrial facilities, the document continued, the site would be have mixed uses. "It is unlikely that the post in the future would be of only one or two principal uses (e.g., entirely administrative)."
The EA and the Final Reuse Plan assumed that redevelopment would occur over a 20-year period and would indeed be multifaceted.
"The reuse plan concentrates on conservation of natural and cultural resources, continuation of agricultural-related uses, long-term market flexibility, and creation of jobs and economic development for the region," it said.
"The largest blocks of unfragmented forests would be maintained as natural conservation areas, and major natural drainage corridors would be maintained as natural conservation areas."
Corridors would be constructed to connect noncontiguous natural areas where necessary, the document continued. A right-of-way for a Highway 63/Highway 71 east-west connection would be provided or preserved.
"Agricultural uses would be concentrated in the areas with the best soils, while opportunities for mega-site development would be created," it said.
The natural conservation areas would account for approximately 51 percent of the property and would include:
Natural areas and open space: 2,548 acres – includes wooded areas, tall grass prairie, natural drainage area, green connectors linking larger natural areas and open spaces to each other, and the railroad right-of-way and wells area. Agriculture and forestry: 1,075 acres – most of this land is already being farmed, and tree plantations/forestry would be an allowable use. Parks: 90 acres – two areas have been designated for parks.
Developed areas would account for about 49 percent of the property:
Business and technology: 3,307 acres – this area is intentionally broad and flexible. Proposed uses include offices, office/industrial flex buildings, research and development facilities, manufacturing, warehousing, energy production, educational uses, institutional uses, training facilities and distribution centers. Shared research and conference facilities: 70 acres – this area is planned as a gathering place for future users and the community. Highway-oriented and commercial: 40 acres – this area could include a hotel, auto/truck service plaza, restaurant and convenience stores to serve motorist and future users of NECD.
The reuse plan would allow industries like a coal liquefaction plant to be built at Newport. In fact, a month before the Army released its EA, Indiana Lt. Gov. Becky Skillman announced plans for a coal liquefaction plant to be built on 1,500 acres.
The EA found the plan fit the medium-low intensity category and would have minimal environmental impacts.
Along with the EA, the Army released a two-page draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FNSI) in which it concluded just that, that the LRA's reuse plan would not harm the environment. Indeed, the Army found that preparation of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a more comprehensive, time-consuming analysis of the impacts major government actions or transactions will have on the environment, was not necessary.
"On the basis of the EA, … it has been determined that implementing the proposed action would have no significant adverse effects on the quality of the human or natural environment," said the draft Finding, which was prepared by the Army Corps of Engineers. "Because no significant environmental impacts would result from implementing the proposed action, an EIS is not required and will not be prepared."
The Army's Environmental Assessment and the Reuse Authority's preferred plan dealt perfunctorily with a 336-acre, tallgrass, black-soil prairie that the Army had restored. In a section titled Affected Environments and Consequences, the EA's executive summary provides some context, "Prairie restoration areas on the southwest portion of NECD were part of an Army natural resources project where prairie grass was planted on former farm ground in the mid 1990s and early 2000s."
It emphasizes the prairie's recreated nature. "The prairie restoration areas are not virgin prairie."
Not only did the Army resist public pressure to protect the restored prairie, its EA acknowledged that its future was in question.
"Prairie restoration areas are designated under the reuse plan to be partly in business and technology areas, so eventually (as business development occurs) some loss of the restored prairie areas would be expected," it said. "Business development on the property would result in the conversion of some open space to developed areas, so minor adverse effects on common species found on the property would be expected."
The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR) had proposed a new prairie restoration area on 1,749 acres of the installation's northwestern and north-central portions, the plan said. "The proposal is still under consideration."
The LRA's plan said the depot's natural environment supported a variety of ecosystems and habitats that thrive in rivers, deciduous and evergreen wooded areas, open prairie, flatlands, and areas that interface between croplands and forest.
"The Depot enjoys abundant water resources, due to the proximity of the Wabash River and the presence of a substantial aquifer located beneath the Depot to the east," it said. "The region also enjoys a wide variety of wildlife species, including white-tailed deer, prairie vole, opossum, short-tailed shrew, bog lemming, raccoon, coyote, cottontail rabbit, and bluegill, as well as the endangered Indiana bat."
The 461 acres set aside by the Army as a Prairie Restoration Area was also of interest, the reuse plan's executive summary said. The depot's western edge was originally covered by tallgrass prairie and represented the extreme eastern extent of an ecosystem that once stretched west to the Rocky Mountains, it noted.
Most of the land on and surrounding the depot had long been used for agriculture, the executive summary continued. "The rich prairie soil results in some of the most productive farmland in the country."
Most of the land designated for agriculture and forestry was being farmed, except for a portion with some wooded areas. The reuse plan would allow tree plantations and forestry in these areas.
"Tallgrass prairie would also be an allowed use within the Agriculture & Forestry areas," it said.
On Aug. 25, 2011, the LRA and DNR signed an agreement for a 15-year conveyance of 1,093 acres of forest and 612 acres of cropland to the DNR for a one-time payment of $10. It says the forest land must be used for "conservation purposes" and the farm fields "exclusively for agricultural purposes or conservation purposes, including prairiegrass restoration and wetlands banking."
Steven Higgs can be reached at editor@BloomingtonAlternative.com.