RICHMOND — Construction of the plant that will destroy 523 tons of chemical weapons in Madison County appeared to have dodged one budget bullet Tuesday, although it's still unclear whether it will escape the "fiscal cliff" of automatic federal spending cuts.
First, the good news: Some $36.4 million was "reprogrammed," or redirected from other defense projects, for construction of the plant at Blue Grass Army Depot, according to documents obtained by the Herald-Leader.
"It's a much brighter day than it was yesterday," Craig Williams, co-chair of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board, told other commission members Tuesday.
In his budget request to Congress, President Obama sought $115 million in construction dollars for the plant.
However, because the 2013 defense bill had not been signed by Oct. 1, the start of the federal government's fiscal year, the construction project had operated under a "continuing resolution."
That mechanism keeps government funded when Congress and the President do not agree on legislation. Under the six-month continuing resolution, the construction account for the Madison County plant was limited to $36.7 million.
That's still a lot of money, but not the amount Madison County officials had hoped would be available to accelerate the project, which is now 60 percent finished. By the end of next year, the wepons-destruction plant is supposed to be about 80 percent complete, Brubaker said.
If the additional $36.4 million had not been redirected, about 410 contract personnel might have been laid off Jan. 2, and an additional 90 employees would have been laid off in early March, according to the reprogramming documents.
That's half of the nearly 1,000 people employed on the project in Madison County now. The project has an average monthly payroll of $7.6 million, according to figures provided by Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the contractor.
In addition, $20 million in procurements would have been delayed, the start of operations would have been delayed by 12 to 18 months, and the overall life cycle cost of the projects would have increased by $80 million to $130 million, the documents say.
If the money had not been redirected, "this project would have been on a steep decline in execution," Williams said. "There is absolutely no way we could have continued this project at the rate we're going now had we not gotten this reprogramming though."
Williams credited Sen. Mitch McConnell, Rep. Ben Chandler and Rep. Hal Rogers for their efforts to reprogram the money.
Williams said he received confirmation Tuesday about the construction dollars from staff of the subcommittee that oversees military construction funds and from Conrad Whyne, program executive officer of the Assembled Chemical Weapons Alternatives, the government agency that oversees the destruction of chemical weapons in Colorado and Kentucky.
Meanwhile, Jeff Brubaker, site project manager for the Madison County plant, said Tuesday he and others are "closely monitoring what's going on with things like the fiscal cliff."
If Obama and Congress do not come to an agreement, automatic spending cuts and tax increases would go into effect after Jan. 1.
The immediate impact of the fiscal cliff would be $154 million cut from construction dollars for Colorado and Kentucky chemical-weapons projects, Williams said.
"Nobody knows with precision" what that would mean for the Madison County plant, Williams said.
Brubaker said the construction project "would continue on" even if the fiscal cliff is not avoided.
"It may not allow us to ramp up as aggressively as we would have liked to," he said.