Chemical destruction plant 60% done

gkocher1@herald-leader.comDecember 28, 2012 

RICHMOND — 2012 was the year that construction passed the halfway mark for the pilot plant in Madison County that will destroy tons of chemical weapons.

The $1.8 billion construction project at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond is 60 percent finished. Construction should be completed in mid-2015, but it will take four more years to test the plant's systems.

Destruction of the weapons is scheduled to start in 2020, to be finished in 2023, if not earlier.

According to the latest baseline announced in April, the project is on schedule and on budget, Tom McKinney, project manager for general contractor Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, said during a Dec. 19 tour.

"I think we're on track," McKinney said.

Echoing that is Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, a Berea-based organization that monitors the status of the project.

"Profound progress has been made in this year," Williams said. "I can say with confidence at this point in time, we're ahead of the curve."

The first mustard or blister agent arrived at the depot in 1944, and the nerve-agent weapons came between 1962 and 1966. The blister agent is a powerful skin irritant. Exposure to the nerve agents could cause convulsions and respiratory failure. The agents are often referred to as nerve "gas" or mustard "gas," but they're really liquids that become aerosols when exploded.

The nerve agents and blister agents are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre depot, which stores and distributes conventional munitions. Blue Grass has only 2 percent of the nation's original stockpile, and the chemical weapons there will be the last to be destroyed.

The plant under construction will chemically neutralize these agents. Work began on the 25-acre pilot-plant site in 2006, and construction of the actual disposal facilities started in 2009.

Last summer, workers finished putting the final concrete placement on the building where the weapons will be dismantled. The building contains 2,095 tons of reinforcing steel and 12,400 cubic yards of concrete. Its 2-foot-thick walls are designed to withstand a weapon explosion or a chemical leak.

Workers began a new phase of construction involving the installation of additional structural steel, piping, millions of feet of electrical cable, and specialized process equipment, said Jeff Brubaker, site project manager for Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the government agency that oversees projects in Kentucky and Colorado.

A laboratory, a maintenance building and a personnel support building were finished this year at the Madison County site.

The plant's economic impact has been considerable. More than $102 million has been spent with Kentucky companies, and $62.8 million has been spent in Madison and surrounding counties, according to figures presented this month to the Kentucky Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board. Those groups meet quarterly to discuss the plant's progress.

The payroll since the project began totals $373 million, and $437 million more is to be paid through the project's years of operation and the completion of its job.

Staffing in Richmond now approaches nearly 1,000 people. The average monthly local payroll is $7.6 million, according to figures presented by Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass. That includes manual and non-manual workers. (More than 60 other people in California, Maryland, Ohio and Washington are fabricating special equipment for the plant.)

From design through construction, operations and its closing in 2026 or 2027, the total "life cycle" cost of the project is $5.5 billion.

The economic impact of the plant will be the subject of a study that was announced in September. The study's first phase, to be completed in July 2013, will cost $120,000. It will include a labor analysis and suggest how to avoid layoffs once the chemical weapons have been destroyed. It will look at the inventory of workers' skills that could be transferred to other jobs.

Two additional phases might take two to three more years and will cost $380,000. Part of the second phase will look at how the pilot plant could be re-purposed for another use once the chemical weapons are gone.

The final phase of the study will look at public-private partnerships for that re-purposing.

Funding for the pilot plant, which has had its ups and downs over the years, continued to be a roller-coaster ride in 2012. President Barack Obama's defense request to Congress for fiscal year 2013 included an increase in the amount of money to build the plant.

The president's budget included $115 million for construction and $296 million for research, development, testing and evaluation.

When a defense bill had not been signed by Oct. 1, the start of the federal fiscal year, funding for the project was limited to $36.7 million for construction during a six-month "continuing resolution" period. A continuing resolution is a mechanism that provides funding for projects until a budget for the new fiscal year is passed.

But that level of funding was insufficient to cover the cost of personnel and materials needed to continue construction, to avoid layoffs, and to buy bulk materials. If an additional $36.4 million had not been found, about half of the 1,000 workers would have been laid off.

Thanks to efforts by Kentucky's congressional delegation, $36.4 million was "re-programmed," or redirected, in December from other projects to the plant construction.

Work at the site stopped briefly in early May so safety procedures and practices could be reviewed with workers after a couple of minor accidents. In 2011, the plant site earned one of highest recognitions for a worker-safety program from the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass has asked workers to assume a "brother's keeper" mentality with safety. Employees are asked to watch out not only for themselves but for others who might be doing something unsafe. Recordable injuries and lost-time injuries at the plant site compare favorably to industry standards.

A public hearing will be held early in 2013 to receive public comment on a proposal to remove the propellant sections from 44 nerve-agent rockets. A state permit is necessary before that operation would be done in early 2014.

The Army wants to test and verify the stability of the propellants in those rockets so it can determine whether the destruction of those sections should be done somewhere other than the pilot plant.

Greg Kocher: (859) 231-3305. Twitter: @HLpublicsafety.

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