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VX destruction ready to resume at Newport

Monday, June 20, 2005

NEWPORT, Ind. (AP) -- Workers at the Newport Chemical Agency Disposal Facility plan to resume destroying a stockpile of deadly VX nerve agent this week after reviewing lessons learned from the first five weeks of operations.

The neutralization process that converts the lethal nerve agent into a chemical called hydrolysate is expected to resume later this week, said Rick Rife, a spokesman for the Army contractor handling the project.

The planned break coincided with a June 10 spill of a chemical byproduct that was cleaned up within a few days, and officials used the break to meet with employees to review ways to improve procedures, Rife said.

"The supervisors answered questions and provided information to the workers, and the workers offered suggestions to management," Rife said. Those suggestions are being evaluated and some may be implemented.

One suggestion that came from the meetings was better positioning of the closed circuit cameras in the containment area so operators can better monitor the process by which VX is neutralized, Rife said.

Over the next two years, contractors hope to chemically neutralize more than 250,000 gallons of VX kept at the depot by mixing it with heated water and sodium hydroxide in chemical reactors.

The process produces a chemical called hydrolysate, which the Army compares to drain cleaner.

The spill June 10 was the first since workers began destroying the chemical at the depot on May 5. The Army said in a release that none of the agent escaped a containment area and that there was no danger to nearby communities.

The spill involved a mixture of VX and hydrolysate. It occurred while VX was being fed into a reactor where the nerve agent is neutralized.

Workers suspected a faulty valve diaphragm caused the leak.

"The valves were removed and reassembled," Rife said. "The valves themselves were not replaced, just the gaskets/diaphragms."

More than 250,000 gallons of the Cold War-era chemical weapon are stored at the depot about 30 miles north of Terre Haute. VX is so deadly that just one drop can kill a person.

Destroying the VX, which is mandated by the International Chemical Weapons Convention Treaty, is expected to take more than two years.

However, where the chemical will ultimately be disposed of remains unsettled. The Army wants to ship it to a plant in New Jersey for additional treatment and disposal in the Delaware River, but that plan has met opposition from residents in the area.

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