RICHMOND — Slowly but surely, the pilot plant that will destroy 523 tons of chemical agent in Madison County continues to take shape.
Site construction is more than 25 percent complete at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond, but the plant won't be finished until 2016. The reinforced concrete walls are more than 2 feet thick and 60 feet tall in some places, and the foundations are nearly 4 feet thick in some spots — all to withstand any explosion of the rockets and projectiles scheduled for destruction starting in 2018.
"That's not something that goes up very quickly," site project manager Jeff Brubaker said during a tour in early December.
Once the structural steel and concrete is finished, mechanical piping and electrical lines must be installed.
"With all the instrumentation and controls, we're going to be installing about 7 million linear feet of wire and cable," Brubaker said. "That, in and of itself, is going to take between about 2½ and 3 years to complete. It is on par with a large chemical-processing or nuclear facility."
During 2010, the last of the plant's design packages were completed; the foundation for the munitions demilitarization building — the 90,000-square-foot space where the munitions will be taken apart, the agent drained, and the explosives removed and neutralized — was finished; and six of the seven blast-containment walls were erected, with the seventh to be up by the end of the year.
Craig Williams, executive director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, the Berea-based group that monitors weapons destruction, said 2010 was a year "of a tremendous amount of progress."
"I can tell you that they're making excellent progress on the main facility," Williams said.
Looking ahead, the coming year will see continued installation of structural steel. The foundation will be completed for the place designated for supercritical water oxidation, the process that will neutralize the liquid waste stream.
2011 might be the year a decision is made on whether to explode mustard rounds inside containment vessels. That's under consideration because some solidified residue inside the rounds could complicate removal of the mustard agent and could pose a greater risk to worker safety.
No decision to explode the mustard rounds would be made until an X-ray assessment of a sample 96 non-leaking rounds and another 79 projectiles that had previously leaked. The movement of the non-leaking rounds into an igloo could take place in February and March, and the assessment would be conducted from May through July, according to a tentative schedule.
In the meantime, 80 percent of all construction materials are under contract for delivery. A large portion of that material will be delivered in 2011 and will continue to be delivered over the next three years.
Because there isn't enough storage space on site for that material, much of it will be put on a 7-acre tract next to the construction site, Brubaker said.
Testing of equipment means the plant won't start destroying weapons until 2018. Then it will take until 2021 to complete their destruction.
Of the 775 people employed on the project, 54 percent have been hired from the Central Kentucky region, said Mark Seely, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Bluegrass, the contractor on the project. That region, as defined by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, is Madison, Woodford, Fayette, Scott, Bourbon, Clark, Jessamine and Rockcastle counties.
And of those 775 employed, 368 are considered non-manual personnel such as managers, engineers, and buyers, while 282 are manual employees such as carpenters, ironworkers and laborers.
The 775 also includes 125 people who are considered part of the Blue Grass project but who work outside Kentucky, such as in Ohio, Maryland, California and Washington state. (Some of the equipment that will be installed in Madison County is being tested elsewhere, such as San Diego and Pasco, Wash.)
About $177 million of local payroll has been paid to date, according to figures presented during a Dec. 14 public meeting in Richmond. More than $450 million more will be paid through the remainder of the project.
So far, nearly $67 million has been spent with Kentucky companies since the project began. More than $40 million was spent in Madison and contiguous counties, and another $26.2 million was spent in other Kentucky counties.
The project, which began in 2003, had its first lost-time incident when in April a worker suffered a knee injury that required some minor surgery, Brubaker said.
Meanwhile, Bechtel Parsons Bluegrass continues to pursue certification with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration as one of the safest work sites in the country. The company is seeking the Star designation for excellence in safety and health.