Madison County

After years of construction, when will chemical weapons be destroyed?

After years of design and construction, the plant that will destroy chemical weapons in Madison County now enters a long phase of testing to verify that its complex systems do what they’re supposed to.

The government had planned to start destroying blister or mustard agent in 2017, but unexpected costs at the Madison County plant and another in Pueblo, Colo., shifted priorities. The mustard munitions would have been destroyed in a smaller building behind the main plant south of Richmond where nerve agents will be destroyed.

The focus now will be on getting the main plant up and running, according to a priority set by the Defense Department in November. That means mustard munitions will be destroyed after the main plant has neutralized GB and VX nerve agents.

The change in priorities will not affect the timetable for destruction of the chemical weapons, which is scheduled to start in 2020 and to be completed in 2023, said site project manager Jeff Brubaker.

From now until 2020, workers will test all the different systems in the main plant. The number and complexity of all those systems is why it takes so long for “systemization,” Brubaker said.

“The systemization effort is done in phases. It starts with individual components and then builds to subsystems and then full systems and the last nine to 12 months is focused on integration operations, where we will run all the systems together and we’ll run it exactly the way we intend to run when we bring the first agent into the plant,” Brubaker said.

The $1.5 billion plant is one of the biggest and most expensive construction projects in Central Kentucky history, and its accompanying employment and payroll are also large.

Employment at the end of the year was 958, with 600 at the plant site, 200 people at project office at old Richmond Mall, and the remainder at other satellite locations. Eventually employment will reach a peak of about 1,150 in a couple of years.

So far, some $848 million in payroll has been paid on the project, and nearly $170 million has been spent with Kentucky companies.

Some belt-tightening occurred in late 2016 as the Madison County and Colorado plants (funded by the same pot of federal dollars) experienced $54 million in unexpected costs. That meant there weren’t as many as dollars to carry over into 2017.

About 75 people were released from the Madison County site but most will be able to find jobs elsewhere in Bechtel Parsons, the parent company of the prime contractor of the Richmond plant, said Ron Hink, project manager for Bechtel.

A hiring freeze went into effect and all overtime was suspended. The work schedule was reduced from 10 hours a day, five days a week to 10 hours a day, four days a week.

One big reason for the cutbacks was the $15 million incurred to replace more than 4,000 welds, many of which were discovered to be deficient in one section of the plant.

“It was just easier to cut everything out and then refabricate it, and then put it back in piece by piece,” Brubaker said.

The work was begun in January and was completed in August. Three sets of eyes have checked and re-checked each weld, “we have a high confidence in their completeness,” Brubaker said.

In the meantime, work has been suspended on the facility where mustard munitions will be destroyed. Those projectiles will be destroyed in a steel chamber that will electronically heat them until they explode. The process is called “explosive destruction technology” or EDT.

Construction subcontractors left the EDT site on Nov. 30. Work will resume to finish the building at some point in the future.

“It could be several years” before work on EDT starts again, Brubaker said.

The blister agent has been stored at Blue Grass Army Depot in Madison County since the 1940s.