Conservationists blast Newport depot reuse plan

Plans to develop a former Army weapons facility in western Indiana are drawing fire from conservationists, who say the group charged with finding a new role for the property is ignoring their concerns about a restored prairie on the site.

The Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority hopes to develop a business and industrial campus on 11 square miles at the Vermillion County site that once produced and stored the deadly VX nerve agent.

But conservationists say the plan would destroy all but about 44 acres of the state's largest restored black-soil tallgrass prairie and want the reuse group to reconsider.

"It is such a unique environment and part of what Indiana has been," Dave Burns, president of the Ouabache Land Conservancy, told the Tribune-Star.

Nearly 400 letters were submitted to the Reuse Authority during a public hearing in 2009 in support of saving the entire prairie and placing it into a different reuse category of "natural areas and open spaces." But advocates say minutes of the hearing made little mention of their concerns.

"Before, the Army was proud of the prairie and won environmental security awards. Now, the prairie is like it is a four-letter word," said Phillip W. Cox, conservation chair for the Wabash Valley Audubon Society.

Cox knows the property well after serving as the natural resources administrator at the depot from 1987 to July 2010 for Mason and Hanger Corp., the former operating contractor at the depot.

He said the Army spent nearly $128,000 from 1994 to 2005 to restore 336 acres of tallgrass prairie.

"It is now the largest black-soil prairie in Indiana and should be protected," Cox said.

At one time, about 15 percent of the land in northwestern and west-central Indiana was covered in prairie grasses. Today, less than 1 percent exists, according to the state's Division of Nature Preserves.

An Indiana Department of Natural Resources official said he asked the reuse group in 2009 to revise its plan in order to protect the prairie, saying plowing it up would devastate wildlife.

Dale Zimmerman, district wildlife biologist with DNR's Division of Fish and Wildlife, said he was disappointed that the group's environmental assessment didn't reflect those concerns.

Bill Laubernds, executive director of the Reuse Authority, has repeatedly said the goal is to develop a business and industrial campus to provide jobs in Vermillion County, with forested and prairie areas providing added value to those business and industry areas.

The Army is expected to turn over the property to the Reuse Authority next year, pending final reviews.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Story Continues Below

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining
{{ articles_remaining }}
Free {{ article_text }} Remaining Article limit resets on
{{ count_down }}