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The History of the Pine Bluff Arsenal

The Pine Bluff Arsenal has been a staple of the community since World War II, producing wartime munitions and creating numerous civilian jobs.

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At the beginning of World War II, the Army’s Chemical Warfare Service began constructing munitions plants in remote locations across the U.S. in preparation for America’s entry into the war. Congressman David D. Terry of Little Rock contacted the Army’s War Production Board to offer a remote area in southeast Arkansas, easily accessible by river, rail, and road as the site for a munitions plant. Aware of the plant's future benefits to the local economy, Terry solicited the help of Pine Bluff’s Mayor Lawrence Blackwell to ensure that the Chemical Warfare Service knew that the local government would welcome and support their facility.

On November 2, 1941, with the support of Pine Bluff’s elected officials and the promised services of the Arkansas Power and Light Company, the Army bought 14,944 acres of land eight miles northeast of Pine Bluff. There they began construction of the $60 million dollar Chemical Warfare Arsenal facility.

As World War II raged on, the arsenal employed 10,000 civilians and 350 military personnel. The facility produced millions of magnesium and thermite incendiary munitions and conducted biological warfare experiments using pathogens. The plant later expanded into the realm of chemical warfare manufacturing, producing lethal gases, chemical compounds for artillery shells and specially designed bombs. The manufacturing of these chemicals resulted in the deaths of fifteen civilian workers in work-related accidents.

The Arsenal grew to include more than 900 production facilities and buildings with its expanded mission. It required 3.3 million square feet of space, forty-three miles of roads, and fourteen miles of diesel-engine munitions railroad tracks.

In 1942, the facility was renamed the Pine Bluff Arsenal. It became one of the nation’s storage locations for its growing chemical munitions stockpile. In 1953, the Arsenal began producing lethal biological pathogens at its Production Development Laboratories under the direction of William Capers Patrick, the Army’s chief microbiologist. Patrick had perfected the production of the dispersal of airborne anthrax spores. In 1956, he became the production manager of the large-scale Project X1002.

In 1969, President Richard Nixon banned the production of biological weapons following the public’s protest of the use of Agent Orange, a toxic, cancer-causing herbicide used in the Vietnam War. The Arsenal halted the production of biological weapons at its facility that year. It also moved part of its complex a few miles north of the arsenal, changed its mission, renaming it the National Center for Toxicological Research (NCTR). Today, this internationally renowned research center is now under the control of the Department of Health and Human Services and a branch of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

In 2005, the Chemical Agent Disposal Facility and the Washington Demilitarization Company, its civilian contractor, began on-site incineration of the 3,850 tons of toxic nerve agents stored by the Army’s Chemical and Biological Defense Command since World War II.On November 16, 2010, the last chemical agents stored at the arsenal were destroyed. Since 2011, the Arsenal makes smoke, incendiary, and pyrotechnic devices and tests chemical defense clothing. In May 2012, Vivione Biosciences leased a 2,000 square foot space at the arsenal to work on the rapid-B diagnostic technology it developed in partnership with NCTR.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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