RICHMOND — Chemical weapons were big news in Syria in 2013, but they will continue to be news in Madison County into the 2020s, when the last nerve and blister agents are scheduled to be destroyed.
Construction of the $1.8 billion pilot plant that will render the weapons harmless is 75 percent complete, contractor Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass announced last month. Construction should be completed in 2015, but it will take five more years to install and test the plant's 600 different systems. Two of those years will be spent training the 700 workers who will operate the plant.
Destruction of the weapons is scheduled to start in 2020 and will be finished in 2023, if not earlier. That timeline has prompted some citizens to ask why it's taking so long to rid Madison County of its weapons when Syria must destroy its stockpile by June 30, 2014.
That's comparing apples and oranges, officials say. Syria's remaining chemicals are in bulk and, as far as is known, are not in rockets or projectiles. The depot's three different chemicals — GB (sarin), VX and mustard — are "weaponized," which means that they are in either rockets or projectiles. (The machines that will cut and shear the rockets were installed in 2013.)
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"We have to take them apart in a way that's not going to impact the safety of our workers and the community," said Stephanie Parrett, public affairs specialist for the pilot plant. So building a plant that takes apart those weapons safely, that meets environmental standards, and that keeps the surrounding population safe takes time and money.
The plant's economic impact has been considerable. More than $118 million has been spent with Kentucky companies, and $68.4 million has been spent in Madison and surrounding counties, according to figures presented last month to the Kentucky Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission and the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board. Those groups meet quarterly to discuss the plant's progress.
The payroll since the project's design phase in 2003 totals $498 million. Construction staffing in Richmond now is almost 1,350 workers and will grow to 1,400 this year as electrical systems, piping and conduit are put into the plant.
From design through construction, operations and its closing in 2026 or 2027, the total "life cycle" cost of the project is $5.5 billion.
In the meantime, work will continue on other fronts in 2014.
Design work has already begun on the "static detonation chamber," the system chosen to safely destroy mustard projectiles that are deemed unsuitable for processing through the main plant.
An X-ray assessment of mustard munitions in 2011 confirmed that blister agent had solidified in a significant number of projectiles. That renders them unsuitable for robotic disassembly and processing in the pilot plant. Trying to remove the mustard agent or the explosive components from the projectiles by hand poses a greater risk to workers than exploding the rounds in a steel vessel.
"From our standpoint, we had to explore another way to get access to the agent and destroy it," said George Rangel, communications manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass.
So, after a public comment period, the commander of the depot in October issued a "finding of no significant impact" to the environment in the use of explosive detonation technology to destroy the 15,000 155mm mustard rounds at Blue Grass.
The Army directed Bechtel Parsons to move forward with the selection of a technology to destroy the mustard munitions. Bechtel Parsons selected a system called a static detonation chamber, which is made by UXB International Inc. of Virginia.
The chamber is spherical and uses electricity-generated heat that causes the munitions to detonate or "deflagrate" in the manner of a roadside flare.
The technology has a pollution abatement system that removes particulates, sulfur-dioxides, chlorine and any heavy metals, Rangel said. The system also has a carbon-filtration system and monitoring equipment to ensure that air released back into the environment is clean.
The chamber will be inside a steel building constructed atop a concrete foundation.
In late March, the Army will begin removing propellant sections from 44 nerve-agent rockets. The Army wants to test and verify the stability of the propellants in those rockets so it can determine whether the destruction of those motor sections should be done in the plant or elsewhere on the depot, said site project manager Jeff Brubaker.
It will take about a month to separate the propellant sections from the rockets. A team will unscrew the motor sections from the rocket assemblies inside a storage igloo, an earthen bunker.
Twenty-five of the rocket motors will be sent by truck to the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center in Picatinny, N.J. The other 19 will remain at Blue Grass Army Depot to await further testing.
On another front, local officials continue to plan for the day when the chemical weapons are gone, and to ensure that the depot remains a viable employer.
Other weapons-destruction sites around the country have seen workforce reductions as they completed the elimination of chemical weapons. A report released in Madison County in September described the jobs and skill sets that will be available when the weapons are destroyed.
Local officials hope to use that information to either attract new industries or to put those workers into existing industries. The idea is to keep as many of the chemical-plant workers in the area as possible.
Two more study phases will look at the pilot plant's economic impact and how the plant might be "re-purposed" for other uses.
Local officials are discussing possible funding sources for those phases with the Defense Department's Office of Economic Adjustment and Kentucky's congressional delegation. The last two phases of study will cost more than $400,000.
The World War II-era blister and nerve weapons are stored on 250 acres of the 15,000-acre 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.