RICHMOND — Madison County officials announced Wednesday the initial funding and launch of a regional study that will look at the economic impact of the plant that will destroy 523 tons of chemical weapons.
The plant now under construction at Blue Grass Army Depot south of Richmond is about 55 percent finished. Destruction of the weapons is scheduled to start in 2020 and will be finished in 2023, if not earlier.
The Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet will pay for the $120,000 study, which will look at how the weapons disposal plant influences the local and regional economy.
Blue Grass Army Depot currently supports the second-highest average employee wages in the region, bested only by the Toyota plant in Scott County.
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"There will be hundreds of workers, many of them highly skilled ... and we'd like to look now at how we can create an opportunity to keep as many of those people here as we possibly can," said Craig Williams, co-chairman of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board.
Contracted consultants and employees with Blue Grass Area Development District will do the study, which will be completed in July 2013. Two additional phases of the study might take an additional two to three years to finish and would cost an additional $380,000. The funding sources for those phases have not been identified.
While $500,000 for a multi-year study might sound expensive, officials said it is a fraction of the dollars brought into the community through payroll. So far, the chemical weapons project has pumped $348 million in payroll into the community. The construction of the plant now employs 977 people, including 916 in Richmond and 61 fabricating special equipment in California, Maryland, Ohio and Washington state.
Madison County officials don't want the hundreds of highly skilled workers who will destroy the weapons to be without jobs once the weapons are gone.
And they do not want the depot to show up on the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) list that has closed military bases across the country.
So they see now as the time to come up with plans to forestall these outcomes and prepare Madison County for life after chemical weapons.
For more than a year, an "economic development working group" has met to grapple with these questions. The working group was a committee of the Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, groups that meet quarterly each year to discuss efforts to destroy the Madison weapons stockpile.
The weapons-destruction plant has a "life cycle" cost of $5.4 billion, including design of the plant as well as construction, operations and the ultimate completion of its job.
The study announced Wednesday will not look at the impact of possibly losing 310 jobs at the depot, which also stores and moves conventional weapons. Depot employees were told in July that the winding down of U.S. military operations in the Middle East reduced the demand for depot materials and could lead to layoffs beginning in mid-2013.
The Department of Defense has made no decision regarding those jobs, said Col. Brian Rogers, commanding officer of the depot. Rogers said Wednesday he did not know when a decision will be made.
The chemical weapons in Madison County are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre depot. Blue Grass, the smallest of nine storage sites, has only 2 percent of the nation's original chemical stockpile.
Stockpiles have been destroyed in Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Maryland, Oregon, Utah and in the Johnson Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Pueblo, Colo., and Madison County are the only remaining sites. Kentucky was always scheduled to be last because it contained the smallest amount of weapons.
Other weapons-destruction sites in Anniston, Ala.; Tooele, Utah; and Pine Bluff, Ark., have seen workforce reductions in recent years as they completed the elimination of chemical weapons.
For example, employment associated with Anniston averaged 1,000, and it is now less than 800, said Michael Abrams of Anniston Chemical Activity. Some workers at Anniston have found work at Blue Grass Army Depot in Richmond, Abrams said.
In Anniston, the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce has a program called Operation 1st RATE (Ready Able Trained Employees) to help find employment for displaced chemical-disposal workers, said program manager Sherri Sumners.
"We recognize that all these people who are highly skilled were a great asset to the community, and we wanted to put in place a plan to use that as a marketing tool for economic development," Sumners said. "What's better than a training program is somebody who doesn't need to be trained."
With funding from the Defense Department, Operation 1st RATE started a year ago and has found jobs for 110 workers, Sumners said.
The skills of displaced workers were inventoried and then cross-referenced with a list of businesses in six counties that use or need those skills, Sumners said.
Sumners gave credit to Kentucky officials for trying to plan.
"It's good to think it all the way through," Sumners said. "There's no excuse for being blindsided when you know the day is coming when these jobs will be lost."