Madison County

Deficient welds at weapons plant mostly repaired, but at what cost?

Repairs of deficient welds are nearly complete at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant south of Richmond in Madison County.
Repairs of deficient welds are nearly complete at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant south of Richmond in Madison County.

The good news is that the repair of more than 4,000 deficient welds at the Blue Grass Army Depot chemical-weapons destruction plant is nearly finished and will be completed ahead of schedule.

The bad news is that the materials and labor to do that work will cost about $15 million, officials said this week. (To put that figure in context, the city of Berea south of the plant anticipates total 2016-17 general fund revenue of $18.5 million.)

The weld repairs are paid from money that is set aside each year in a “risk pool” for unforeseen problems that might arise in construction, said site project manager Jeff Brubaker.

“We didn’t have to ask for more money” from the federal government, he said Wednesday.

The repairs are not expected to delay the opening of the Madison County plant, which is scheduled to begin destroying deadly GB and VX nerve agents in 2020.

“But you feel satisfied with the work that’s been done to repair those welds?” asked David Benge during a quarterly meeting Wednesday of the Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board.

“Absolutely,” Brubaker said. “I can tell you we had three to four different types of review made on each and every weld, so we are very satisfied with the quality that’s in place at this point in time.”

Pipefitters at the plant site found the deficient welds in piping that will feed liquids to and from vessels where chemical compounds will be treated in a process called supercritical water oxidation. The process involves high temperatures and pressures that break down the compounds into carbon dioxide, water and salts.

It will take until mid- to late November to repair the remaining 24 welds. But Brubaker and Ron Hink, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the prime contractor on the plant, said the repair work is 99 percent complete.

“We were originally thinking it would be around Christmastime before we completed,” Brubaker said.

The work took less time than anticipated because it didn’t take as long to acquire the exotic alloys — inconel and hastelloy — needed for the repairs.

“Some of these materials came from outside the United States, but the project put a full-court press on obtaining the materials as quickly as possible,” Brubaker said. “Our original estimates suggested that some of the materials might take 20 and 24 weeks to acquire.”

But that time was halved, and so materials were obtained more quickly.

And Hink said “the best of the best” welders familiar with the exotic materials were brought in to do the repairs.

Brubaker told the advisory board that the subcontractor that put in the deficient welds is no longer in business.

“So we see that as a positive, that they’re not going to inflict themselves on another project in a negative way,” he said.

No litigation has been filed in connection with the welding problems, Hink said. The parties are trying to reach an out-of-court resolution with General Atomics, the company that subcontracted the fabrication and welding to another company in California.

Mustard or blister agent will be destroyed through another process that is scheduled to start next year. The weld problems do not affect their destruction.