RICHMOND — After years of planning and design, the pilot plant that will destroy 523 tons of chemical agent in Madison County is finally taking shape.
Two 300-ton cranes are moving steel and rebar in place for the buildings going up on a 50-acre site at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond. Site preparation and preliminary construction actually began in 2006, but it wasn't until late summer that the first vertical steel began reaching for the sky.
"Now that we're coming out of the ground with the steel, everybody's enthusiastic about that," site project manager Jeff Brubaker said during a tour in early December.
Earlier this year, Congress appropriated more than $500 million — the largest amount ever appropriated for the program — to accelerate the disposal of weapons in Madison County and Colorado's Pueblo Depot Activity. That means more people can be put on the job and more material and equipment can be purchased, Brubaker said.
That shortens completion of the Madison County plant by two years to 2016, although testing of the equipment means the plant won't start destroying the mustard, VX and sarin nerve agents until 2018. Then it will take until 2021 to completely destroy the agents, well past the deadlines set by international treaty and by Congress to finish the job.
Nevertheless, the increase in funding "signifies that there's going to be steady employment, so that's good for morale, too," Brubaker said.
And he said, "We're continually looking for other avenues to accelerate the construction process. If we're successful in doing that, we should be able to start destruction sooner."
A decision scheduled to come in January could accelerate the destruction of mustard agent.
Army officials have suggested the limited use of explosives to destroy some of the mustard munitions. The Pentagon says the method has been thoroughly tested in Europe and is the best and safest way to destroy the weapons.
Of the 589 people employed on the project now, 220 have been hired from the Central Kentucky region, Brubaker said. And of those 589 employed, 429 are considered non-manual personnel such as managers, engineers and buyers, while 160 are manual employees such as carpenters, ironworkers and laborers.
The 589 also includes 116 people who are considered part of the Blue Grass project but who are employed in locations outside Kentucky. For example, some of the equipment that will be installed in Madison County is being tested elsewhere, such as San Diego and Pasco, Wash.
The non-manual payroll alone amounts to about $32 million a year.
Total employment will peak at more than 800 people in coming years of construction, and when the plant finally begins operations in the fall of 2018, employment is expected to reach about 1,000.
As of Oct. 31, Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass had surpassed 4.5 million job hours and 2,338 days without a lost-time injury since construction began in 2006.
So far, nearly $44 million has been spent with Kentucky companies since the project began, Brubaker said. The total budget for the entire Madison County project — from construction to closure — is roughly $3 billion.
Igloos containing sarin nerve agent next to the work site are monitored with hand-held devices by Blue Grass Chemical Activity. Workers have exercises to practice evacuating the site should there be a leak of chemical agent. All employee vehicles on the site are parked in the same position — headed toward the exit — should evacuation become necessary.
Overall, Craig Williams, co-chair of a citizens advisory board that periodically meets with Army and Bechtel officials, said he has been pleased with the construction progress.
"The communication level is extraordinary," Williams said. "We're in almost constant communication on all sorts of issues. They provide us with anything we ask for that is not security sensitive. We get it in a timely manner. They're open to our recommendations on things.
"It's been a very healthy process, and it's built a lot of trust and faith, going both ways. The folks running the program and the contractor see us — the advisory board, the commission and so on — as legitimate players that are in this for serious reasons. And we see them as legitimate players who are doing their best to accommodate our desires of safety, environmental protection and getting the job done."