When chemical weapons are gone, will Madison County retain any of the jobs?

gkocher1@herald-leader.comSeptember 4, 2013 

M55 rockets containing VX nerve agent are stored in a secure bunker at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County. This photo was taken during a media tour on Sept. 6, 2001.

PHOTO BY PABLO ALCALA | STAFF — Herald-Leader Buy Photo

RICHMOND — When the chemical weapons in Madison County are finally destroyed in 2023, local officials want to retain as many of the 1,000 or so "demilitarization" workers as possible.

Some of those workers might be absorbed by automotive and related factories, and other occupations will be valued by existing industries, according to a report released Wednesday. But it will take planning and targeted marketing to find employment for specialized skills, the so-called "layoff aversion study" said.

Other weapons-destruction sites around the country have seen workforce reductions in recent years as they completed the elimination of chemical weapons.

The report's intent is to prevent a boom-and-bust cycle so Madison County and the region aren't adversely affected when the weapons disposal is completed in the next decade, said David Duttlinger, interim executive director of the Bluegrass Area Development District.

"From time to time, we have been told that we are too far ahead in the planning process, that 10 years is a long time away," Duttlinger said. "My response when I hear that is 'good.' The plans and visions we create today will shape how our region looks in the future."

The development district partnered with the Bluegrass Workforce Investment Board and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, a citizens group, to produce the 110-page report.

The study, which cost $120,000 for statistical analysis and economic modeling, is the first phase of what will be a three-part study. The last two phases — a regional transportation analysis and a look at how the finished plant might be "re-purposed" for other uses (if federal laws can be changed) — will cost more than $400,000. U.S. Rep. Andy Barr, R-Lexington, who attended a news conference for the study's release, said he will do what he can to see that funding sources are found.

Officials said the study's cost is a fraction of the $450 million payroll that the chemical weapons destruction plant has pumped into the local economy since construction began in 2006, not to mention the additional $100 million that has been spent with Kentucky companies. The report found that, since 2006, employment in the Madison County area has grown by levels twice that of the United States and three times that of Kentucky.

Construction of the plant, which is 72 percent complete, employs 1,250 people. The plant has a "life cycle" cost of $5.4 billion, which includes its design, construction, operation and ultimate completion of its job.

The World War II-era mustard and sarin weapons are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre Blue Grass Army Depot. Blue Grass has only 2 percent of the nation's original chemical stockpile, and it will be the last of nine sites to have its weapons destroyed. And that is an advantage for Madison County, Duttlinger said.

Kentucky is the end of the line for Bechtel Parsons (general contractor on the plant project) and associated engineers who have relocated to region; in the past they always had the next site to go to, Duttlinger said.

"They have come here and they have seen what the cost of living is in Central Kentucky," Duttlinger said. "They have seen the size of the house they can have and how far their income can go here. And so now, they want to stay, So the question is, where can we retain them?"

With its description of the available skill sets, the report "creates an opportunity to market the talents and the pool of human resources that will be available to attract new industry to the region," said Craig Williams, co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board.

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

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