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Terre Haute Tribune-Star Editorial

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Opinion

 
March 27, 2011

FLASHPOINT: Army needs to protect the prairie at Newport Depot

There are a lot of misconceptions that the 336-acre U.S. Army Newport Chemical Depot prairie will be saved. For the record, this is the largest black soil prairie in Indiana and there are no guarantees that it will be saved. The Indiana Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) stated in a March 2009 letter about the future reuse of the Depot, “Today in the 21st century, prairies and the grassland animals dependent upon them are considered globally threatened. The importance of prairie to endangered grassland species, floodwater retention, groundwater recharge, watershed protection, return of carbon to soils, erosion control, and aesthetics, among many other realized benefits, has caused prairie conservation to be an increasingly important issue. A restoration on this scale would be of national significance.”

Last November, the Army released a “Finding of No Significant Impact (FNSI), Environmental Assessment of the Disposal and Reuse of Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana” and the Final Environmental Assessment (EA) of the Implementation of Base Realignment and Closure at Newport Chemical Depot, Indiana.” There were many concerns and comments sent to the Army about these documents. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request was submitted to the Army on Dec. 28, 2010, requesting all of the public comments. The Army finally responded on March 8. They denied the request for a fee waiver and gave only one day to answer if more than $1,600 could be raised to get the 800 pages of public comments. This is clearly a case of the fox watching the chicken coop; and it is obvious that the Army does not want those comments to get into the public’s hands in a timely manner.

The Hoosier Environmental Council had this to say to the Army:

“Neither the NeCRDA reuse plan, nor the Army’s disposal action, provide for protection of the 336 acre black soil tallgrass prairie area, which is a rare and biologically valuable natural area deserving of permanent protection. Instead, the reuse plan includes most of this prairie area in an agricultural and forestry designation, meaning it could be plowed and planted to row crops in the future. The EA acknowledges this, stating, ‘some loss of the restored prairie areas would be expected.’

“Contrary to the EA’s statement, ‘tallgrass prairie’ is not an agricultural reuse. It is illogical, and inconsistent with a goal of the NeCRDA reuse plan, to include a high quality natural area such as this black soil tallgrass prairie area in a reuse category that may allow its destruction. It is unimportant that this prairie area is restored prairie, because it represents, now and in the future, a rare and important natural community that is worthy of preservation.

“Given that this prairie area constitutes less than 5 percent of the total Newport area, and that more than 3,000 acres would remain for business and technology reuse, it is wholly reasonable and prudent to permanently protect this area. The Army’s disposal action should require that this prairie area be included in the ‘natural areas and open space’ reuse classification, or otherwise assure its permanent protection through an easement or other encumbrance. The Army should reach a finding of significant impact for the Newport Chemical Depot disposal action and prepare a full environmental impact statement which evaluates industrial reuses and their compatibility with the medium-low and low intensity reuses contemplated by the NeCDRA reuse plan and EA. The EIS should also include a disposal alternative which provides for full protection of Newport’s important natural areas and habitats— forests, prairie, and wetlands.”

We agree with the Hoosier Environmental Council, that the documents do not adequately evaluate the effects of destroying the prairie by using it for agricultural production or industrial development purposes.

The Army has received hundreds of comments concerning saving the prairie. The Indiana Wildlife Federation and the Hoosier Chapter of the Sierra Club both passed resolutions to save the prairie and other natural areas at the Depot. Space concerns for this letter do not allow the organizations to be recognized. In addition, the IDNR stated, “We were disappointed, however, to see that a significant portion (maybe 85 percent) of the 336 acres of reconstructed tallgrass prairie in the southwest part of the Newport Chemical Depot has been labeled as ‘Agricultural and Forestry.’ This would indicate to us that these acres can be converted to row crop agriculture destroying years of work and expense. Perhaps more importantly, a host of wildlife species will lose the habitat that they have colonized and thrived in over the past 10-5 years. Grassland birds are among the most threatened species in Indiana, primarily because less than 1 percent of Indiana’s native prairie remains today. Many of them prefer larger expanses of open grasslands.”

The Army needs to do the right thing and absolutely protect the prairie and all the wildlife that inhabit it. Vermillion County could become a destination for outdoor enthusiasts and educators alike. The prairie could even be named the Ernie Pyle Veterans Prairie to honor all of the heroes from Vermillion County that have fought for our freedom. The possibilities are endless.

— Marty Jones, president, Wabash Valley Audubon Society, Terre Haute

— Phillip Cox, past president, Wabash Valley Audubon Society, Montezuma

  

Article from the Terre Haute Tribune-Star

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December 15, 2010

Society aims to preserve Newport Depot tallgrass prairie

336 acres of tallgrass land was restored by Army

NEWPORT — Several groups advocating the preservation of the largest contiguous black-soil restored tallgrass prairie in Indiana say their concerns have fallen on deaf ears and now hope the U.S. Army will take action.

The Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority voted in November 2009 to adopt a plan on how best to use 11 square miles at the former Army weapons facility that once produced and stored VX nerve agent in Vermillion County. The Army is expected to turn over the property to the Reuse Authority next year, pending final reviews.

However, Phillip W. Cox, conservation chair for the Wabash Valley Audubon Society, said the reuse plan would destroy all but about 44 acres of the restored black-soil tallgrass prairie, with the rest used for row crop agriculture or designated for future business development.

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.”

“All those comments and letters at the public hearing, yet minutes of that hearing just glossed over the fact that there was any concern about the prairie,” Cox said. “Before, the Army was proud of the prairie and won environmental security awards. Now, the prairie is like it is a four-letter word,” Cox said.

Cox and others are now sending comments to the Army, which is taking public comment through Friday on the depot’s Environmental Assessment and a draft of Finding of No Significant Impact.

Cox served 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. “The Army spent $127,589 restoring 336 acres of tallgrass prairie from 1994 to 2005. It is now the largest black-soil prairie in Indiana and should be protected,” Cox said.

At one time, about 15 percent of Indiana’s northwest and west-central portions were covered in prairie grasses. Today, less than 1 percent exists, according to the state’s Division of Nature Preserves.

In its plan, the Reuse Authority states prairie can be restored in land on the northern section of the depot property. Cox contends that land is wooded and does not contain the original prairie black soil.

Bill Laubernds, executive director of the Reuse Authority, has repeatedly said the goal remains 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.

Dave Burns, president of the Ouabache Land Conservancy, said he hopes the Army can designate, as part of a property deed, that the prairie be untouched.

“I hope that over the next few days, individuals will take the time to e-mail the Army to demonstrate the concern we have that the Newport Reuse Authority will allow the prairie to be plowed under to grow more corn,” Burns said. “It is such a unique environment and part of what Indiana has been.

“If you look at agriculture in the past 50 years, we have gotten agriculture so perfect, it is a mono-culture. If you want to see corn, it is corn. There is nothing left in that field,” Burns said.

“Plants are the basic food for virtually all other living things. Without a diversity of plants, you will not have the bugs and birds and animals that eat those things,” Burns said. He cited examples such as endangered grassland birds at the site, which include Peregrine Falcon, Henslow’s Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Harrier and Sedge Wren.

The reuse plan will use agricultural crop leases to raise money for industrial and commercial development of the property. Those crop leases this year will raise more than $700,000, Cox said. Removing 336 acres from crop leases would reduce additional annual revenues by about $90,000. Cox said he thinks that is a small price to save 54 species of wildflowers and six species of grasses in an area that also supports many prairie birds and wildlife, as in pre-settlement days of Indiana.

Dale Zimmerman, district wildlife biologist with Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Fish and Wildlife, in a November 2009 public hearing, asked the Reuse Authority to “revise the reuse plan and add all those restored prairie areas to the natural area and open space category. Plowing up these areas and trying to hay them would be devastating to wildlife.”

If the plan is not revised, Zimmerman said during the 2009 public hearing, “Maybe it will yet be possible for the DNR to partner with the Reuse Authority in years ahead through a sale or lease arrangement and if so, these native grasslands would be an important part of any interest that we might have.”

This week, Zimmerman said, the division previously had commented on the entire Newport site, but its comments, such as focusing development first on previously disturbed areas, were not included in the environmental assessment. “We were disappointed those comments were not included and we have referred [the Army and Reuse Authority] back to those comments made as part of our official environmental review process,” he said.



Howard Greninger can be reached at (812) 231-4204 or howard.greninger@tribstar.com

  

NEWPORT CHEMICAL DEPOT TALLGRASS PRAIRIE IN JEOPARDY

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NEWPORT CHEMICAL DEPOT TALLGRASS PRAIRIE IN JEOPARDY

The Newport Chemical Depot (NECD) is a U.S. Army installation that was originally established as the Wabash River Ordnance Works (WROW) in 1941. Previously, the installation has also officially been called the Newport Army Ammunition Plant (NAAP) and Newport Chemical Activity (NECA). NECD is in a unique approximately 7,100 acre area of west central Indiana.  NECD is located in Vermillion County between two natural regions of west central Indiana climate – the Grand Prairie and the Central Till Plain. The Grand Prairie is characterized by its dark and fertile soils and the Central Till Plain is known for its nearly flat to gently rolling landscape. The Depot lies along the boundary between the Grand Prairie and Entrenched Valley Sections.  The Wabash River dominates the area where these regions meet; however, the boundary is not well defined, but rather a mosaic of bluestem prairie and oak-hickory forest. This edge effect has increased the diversity of flora and fauna at NECD.

In 1993, the NECD Operating Contractor, Mason & Hanger Corp., contracted with the Indiana Division of Nature Preserves to complete the report “Inventory of Natural Areas and Rare Plant Species within the Newport Army Ammunition Plant”.  The report provided inspiration to start reconstruction of the Newport Chemical Depot Tallgrass Prairie, stating “A large acreage of the southwestern portion of NAAP was formerly mesic silt loam prairie. The Vermillion County Soil Survey showed prairie soils for this area, old Indiana county maps showed a large area of prairie, and we observed Big Bluestem and Prairie Dock along the road in the area. A restoration this large (1900 +/- acres) in this part of the Midwest is an exciting opportunity.  There are no remnants in Indiana of prairies of the size of this potential restoration. The  largest prairies that do remain in the state are sand prairies; thus the significance of this area is even more important because it is silt loam prairie restoration.”  In recognition of the Grand Prairie’s importance to Indiana’s history – and more specifically, the ecology of NECD – the NECD successfully reconstructed a portion of NECD to pre-settlement prairie conditions through a series of prairie reconstruction projects begun in 1994 and continuing until 2005.  The prairie reconstruction projects were halted after NECD was placed on the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) List and subsequently scheduled for closure.  

A total of approximately 336 acres was removed from row-crop production and converted to tallgrass prairie.  Peter Schramm of Peter Schramm - Prairie Restorations was contracted to prepare the seedbed, supply the seed and plant all of the acreage in the spring of the year with a Nesbit drill.  Local farmers prepared the seedbed.  Schramm is a retired Knox College (Galesburg, Illinois) professor who pioneered prairie restoration techniques and has over 40 years of experience in the field.  The total contracted cost of the 336 acre prairie reconstruction was $127,589; and was paid entirely from a small portion of the proceeds from NECD’s annual agricultural leases.  Only in 1994 was herbicide (glyphosate) used to assist with the seedbed preparation.  In all of the subsequent years, only shallow tillage methods were used.  A total of six species of grasses and fifty-four species of forbs were planted.

Prescribed burning in the spring has been the primary means to protect the prairie from weedy invasions.  The Indiana Division of Forestry has played a major role in conducting the prescribed burns as the schedule of NECD would allow.  All of the areas have been burned at least once, except for the 47.2 acres planted in 2000.  In 2007 and 2009 NECD partnered with the Indiana Division of Forestry & Sycamore Trails RC&D to train local firefighters, natural resources professionals and the general public how to manage prairie with prescribed burning.  In addition, Mason & Hanger Corp. has mowed wildlife travel lanes in the larger tracts of prairie that were planted in 2001 and 2002.  In addition, approximately 91 acres of prairie that was planted in 2003, 2004 and 2005 was leased and cut once per year for prairie hay in 2007 and 2008.  The forb rich areas adjacent to the main roads were not allowed to be cut for prairie hay. 

The main reason for reconstructing the NECD Tallgrass Prairie was to increase the abundance and species diversity of wildlife in west central Indiana.  The significant decline of grassland bird species is well documented in reports such as the multi-agency 2010 State of the Birds Report. Many grassland bird species (most declining) have been documented at the Newport Chemical Depot.  State endangered grassland bird species that have been documented at NECD are as follows: Henslow’s Sparrow, Upland Sandpiper, Northern Harrier, Sedge Wren, and Peregrine Falcon (hunting Ring-necked Pheasant).    Another interesting prairie area sighting is the State special concern species Bobcat roaming the area. 

The Newport Chemical Depot was awarded the U.S. Army Environmental Security Award for Natural Resources Conservation in 1996 (for 1994, 1995 and 1996) and 2003 (for 2001, 2002 and 2003).  Reconstruction of the prairie was a major focus of winning these awards. Now the Newport Chemical Depot is home to the largest contiguous black soil prairie in the State of Indiana (by far); with room to potentially expand to over 2,000 total acres if the prairie
reconstruction is continued on pre-settlement prairie soils and beyond.  As stated in the Indiana Department of Natural Resources March 20, 2009 letter to the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority, “At one time 14% of the State of Indiana was covered with prairie grasses.  Today less than one-tenth of 1% exists.  Today, in the 21st century, prairies and the grassland animals dependent upon them are considered globally threatened.  The importance of prairie to endangered grassland species, floodwater retention, groundwater recharge, watershed protection, return of carbon to soils, erosion control, and aesthetics, among many other realized benefits, has caused prairie conservation to become an increasingly important issue.  A restoration of prairie on this scale would be of national significance.”

However, the Newport Chemical Depot is scheduled for closure in accordance with Base Realignment and Closure Law.  The Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority’s Reuse Plan makes no provisions for absolutely protecting the prairie.  In fact, approximately 90% of the Newport Chemical Depot Tallgrass Prairie is in areas that could be plowed up or paved over, with little regard for the prairie and its wildlife.  Furthermore, the Department of Defense has not indicated that they have a problem with the probable new owner (Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority) implementing the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Plan’s indifference concerning the conservation of the Newport Chemical Depot Tallgrass Prairie.  Therefore, the Newport Chemical Depot Prairie and all of the life that it holds is in jeopardy - reminiscent of its fate in the 19th century.


Currently the Environmental Assessment (EA) and draft Finding of No Significant Impact (FNSI) are available for review and comment until December 17, 2010.  Copies of the EA and draft FNSI can be obtained by contacting Ms. Cathy Collins, Engineer, Newport Chemical Depot at 765-245-4391, or at cathy.m.collins@us.army.mil. The EA and draft FNSI are also available on the Internet at http://www.hqda.army.mil/acsim/brac/env_ea_review.htm. A copy of the EA and draft FNSI is also available for review at the Clinton Public Library.  Comments on the EA and draft FNSI should be submitted to Ms. Collins via e-mail or U.S. Mail at P.O. Box 160, Newport, IN 47966.  Comments on the EA and draft FNSI should be submitted by no later than December 17, 2010.  All persons that advocate absolutely protecting the largest black soil prairie in the State of Indiana from future destruction should send their comments stating such, as soon as possible, and no later than December 17, 2010.   

  

A few of the Tribune-Star Comments

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Ron Wright wrote:

I'm a lifelong resident of this area. I would be very sorry to see corn inplace of the prairie grass. As far as I,m concerned, we need to protect this unique treasure for future generations.

December 16, 2010, 12:41 PM
lynne lingenfelter wrote:

keep the prairie grass-it is far more important to preserve our environment and to do it with what has naturally been present as long as people have been here-than to make it into another field that will be full of fertilizers and weed killers that will probably not make hardly any difference in the scheme of providing food and jobs, not to mention the fact that we have already spent $130,000 to keep the tallgrass prairie. KEEP IT!

Save the tall-grass prairie at Newport

Indiana and the nation have a valuable piece of our heritage in the tall-grass prairie on the Newport site. This prairie is the only large area where this ancient land cover is replicated. It should be preserved intact.

If this isn’t reason enough to maintain the tall-grass prairie, consider what more row-crop land will do for us. We don’t need more food because we already turn huge quantities of our food crops into fuel for our automobiles. By choosing to destroy the prairie for crop land, we are choosing to power our cars from the destroyed prairie.

If that isn’t enough of an argument for keeping intact what we have, consider what kind of industry we would like to have in the rural recesses of Vermillion County. We should want “green” industry, industry that contributes to the betterment of our world through good environmental practices. Such industry is not likely to be attracted to an area where we destroyed a heritage area so they could build their factory.

The tall-grass prairie needs to be preserved:

We have a valuable, irreplaceable piece of our national heritage.

The row-crop land is going to fuel our cars, not feed us.

Preservation should attract desirable “green” industry.

Save it!

— Bill Eccles

Terre Haute

Voice support for Newport’s tallgrass prairie

Many of you know about the 2,400-acre Wabashiki Fish and Wildlife Area project that hopes to expand into a 43,000-acre flood-plain corridor along the Wabash River and Sugar Creek. This project will benefit wildlife, recreation and the tourism economy. However, a nationally significant complement to this project is less well known, and is in urgent need of massive public support. 

The eastern border of the vast, nearly vanished prairies of the U.S. fell in northwest and west-central Indiana. The interfingering of prairie and forest along the boundary created an area with unusual biological diversity. The largest remaining mix of forest and black soil tallgrass prairie in Indiana is located on the Army’s Newport Chemical Depot, just west of the Wabash. 

The U.S. Army has taken seriously its charge to maintain the natural values of the land it manages. About $130,000 in tax dollars has been spent in a highly successful effort to restore and preserve the Newport tallgrass prairie. It is now an outstanding, educational and recreational resource protecting a variety of declining or endangered plant and animal species, such as the once-abundant Henslow’s sparrow which breeds only in large areas of grassland.

Unfortunately, this significant public investment is about to be wasted. The Army is closing the Depot.

While the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority plans to maintain the surrounding forest areas, it is ignoring the 100-percent support for the prairie expressed by citizens at public hearings. The Reuse Authority intends to plow up the prairie and plant corn.

Admittedly, this will increase Indiana’s corn acreage by a whopping five one-thousandths of one percent, but at the cost of the substantial public investment in the prairie. If economics are our only concern, money could be made by converting any patch of land in public use. Someone could plant corn in city parks and on the ISU campus, or level the Civil War memorial on the courthouse grounds and grind the monument into aggregate to construct a pay parking lot.

But, we don’t and won’t do that. A majority of voters know that it takes more than money to make a decent life and support open space for parks, memorials and wildlife. If you are in this majority, immediately call or e-mail Ms. Cathy Collins, engineer, Newport Chemical Depot at (765) 245-4391, cathy.m.collins@us.army.mil and express your support for the Newport Prairie. The deadline is by Friday, Dec. 17, so time is of the essence.

— George Bakken

Department of Biology

Indiana State University

  

Hoosier Environmental Council Comments

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December 18, 2010

Ms. Cathy Collins
Engineer
Newport Chemical Depot
PO Box 160
Newport, IN 47966

RE: Comments on Environmental Assessment and Draft Finding of No Significant Impact for Disposal and Reuse of Newport Chemical Depot

Dear Ms. Collins,

The Hoosier Environmental Council submits the following comments on the EA and draft FNSI referenced above.

Finding of No Significant Impact

A finding of no significant impact is not appropriate for the proposed action, given the absence of key reuse information in the Environmental Assessment, and the provisions of the Newport Chemical Depot Reuse Authority's (NeCRDA) Reuse Plan which allows the destruction of an important natural resource present at the facility. Therefore, the Army should find that there will be significant environmental impact from the disposal and reuse of the property, and prepare a full environmental impact statement.

1. A high intensity reuse option has been proposed for a portion of the facility which would have major impact on the environmental resources at the Newport facility and surrounding area. This proposed reuse project involves construction and operation of a coal liquefaction plant. This would be a major industrial facility, with potential impacts to air quality, water quality, disturbance or destruction of forest, wetlands, and prairie, and a dramatic change in the nature of the property. This possible type of reuse activity was mentioned in the NeCRDA's reuse plan, but is inconsistent with the low intensity reuse and medium-low intensity reuse alternatives evaluated in the Environmental Assessment. The EA states, "Achieving conversion and redevelopment goals would, at build-out, most closely resemble an Medium-Low (ML) scenario." (Page 3-10).

Such a major industrial facility would be accurately characterized as either a medium-high intensity, or high intensity reuse, both of which were deemed "impractical" in the EA (page 3-6). The EA states, "No land use conflicts would be expected from implementing the reuse plan." (page 4-6). A major industrial operation such as a coal liquefaction plant would not only conflict with other planned uses within the Newport property, but also with the low-intensity land use practices and economic activity occurring in the surrounding areas. Desirable and compatible economic development, such as high-tech or life-sciences industries would be unlikely to locate nearby a major polluting industrial facility.

2. Neither the NeCRDA reuse plan, nor the Army's disposal action, provide for protection of the 336 acre black soil tallgrass prairie area, which is a rare and biologically valuable natural area deserving of permanent protection. Instead, the reuse plan includes most of this prairie area in an agricultural and forestry designation, meaning it could be plowed and planted to row crops in the future. The EA acknowledges this, stating, "some loss of the restored prairie areas would be expected." (page 4-36) Contrary to the EA's statement, "tallgrass prairie" is not an agricultural reuse.

It is illogical, and inconsistent with a goal of the NeCRDA reuse plan, to include a high quality natural area such as this black soil tallgrass prairie area in a reuse category that may allow its destruction. It is unimportant that this prairie area is restored prairie, because it represents, now and in the future, a rare and important natural community that is worthy of preservation. Given that this prairie area constitutes less than 5% of the total Newport area, and that more than 3,000 acres would remain for business and technology reuse, it is wholly reasonable and prudent to permanently protect this area.

The Army's disposal action should require that this prairie area be included in the "natural areas and open space" reuse classification, or otherwise assure its permanent protection through an easement or other encumbrance.

3. The EA's evaluation of public benefit conveyance outcomes is limited and incomplete. The Army should conduct a thorough review of the Notices of Interest applications, and reach an independent conclusion on the merits of these requests and whether they should be granted.

Conclusion

The EA for the disposal and reuse of Newport Chemical Depot is inadequate for the following reasons: a limited analysis of public benefit conveyances as reuse alternatives; the failure to fully evaluate the disposal action's effect on an important natural resource, the tallgrass prairie area; and, the lack of evaluation of major industrial reuses that are being considered for the Newport property by other interests. These deficiencies result in the Army's Environmental Assessment failing to provide a sufficient level of NEPA analysis. The Army should reach a finding of significant impact for the Newport Chemical Depot disposal action and prepare a full environmental impact statement which evaluates industrial reuses and their compatibility with the medium-low and low intensity reuses contemplated by the NeCRDA reuse plan and EA. The EIS should also include a disposal alternative which provides for full protection of Newport's important natural areas and habitats-- forests, prairie, and wetlands.

Sincerely,

Tim Maloney
Senior Policy Director
Hoosier Environmental Council
3951 N. Meridian St., Suite 100
Indianapolis, IN 46208
  

Newport Chemical Depot, June 2011 Article

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Newport Chemical Depot Prairie: Can a Success Story be Saved?

by Lenny Siegel
June, 2011

The 7,000-acre Newport Chemical Depot, nestled in western Indiana's Wabash Valley, is about to be returned to civilian use. The former home of the U.S. Army’s production program for VX nerve agent, it is slated for transfer to a Vermillion County-sponsored Local Reuse Authority sometime this year. Local residents and official are now debating how the former ammunition plant can best provide some of the prairie habitat that once characterized much of this portion of the country.

To download the 3.1 MB, 5 page PDF, go to
NewportPrairie.pdf
  
Copyright 2017 by the Wabash Valley Audubon Society