20 years down, bombs to go: construction near for weapons-destroying plant

A bridge at Blue Grass Amry Depot was built to serve the chemical neutralization plant. The plant won’t be in full operation until at least 2012; it will have about 900 employees during the peak of its operation. Photo: Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass
RICHMOND – It’s not your typical groundbreaking, seeing as how it happened last month, miles away, and the 300 or so guests this morning will be watching it on tape.
It will be a big celebration anyway, because today marks the beginning of the end of a 20-year struggle to rid Madison County of its weapons of mass destruction.
So, at 10 a.m. in an Eastern Kentucky University ballroom, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell and local politicians, military leaders, project officials and activists will welcome a $2 billion chemical neutralization plant that will employ hundreds of people and change the face of Madison’s industrial economy.
More important, it will destroy 523 tons of lethal nerve and blister agent stored at Blue Grass Army Depot, some of it since World War II.
Stringent security measures at the depot meant it wasn’t feasible to hold the ceremony there.
Craig Williams, director of the Chemical Weapons Working Group, toured the site recently and, even though it’s a 35-acre bare patch of ground, found it stirring.
“When you work this long on something that’s always been in the abstract, to see actual progress was a great moment,” said Williams, who has made chemical weapons and other environmental issues his life’s work — first fighting the Army’s plan to incinerate the weapons, then working with McConnell and others to try to keep neutralization on track.
Design to be ready in 2007
No one can say precisely when the first rocket will meet its maker. That will depend on when money is available, among other things. The current estimate is that destruction could begin in mid-2012 and end in mid-2014.
The design will not be completed until late in 2007, said Chris Haynes, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass, the contractor.
And although most of the processes have been used before, seven first-of-a-kind components will have to be tested, he noted.
One potential change in the plans could delay the work.
It involves hydrolysates, the liquid waste stream from neutralization. The plan calls for the hydrolysates to be broken down into simple chemical compounds through a process called supercritical water oxidation — what one project official has likened to a pressure cooker.
However, after the Pentagon ordered that hundreds of millions of dollars be cut from the project, officials downsized the plant and studied more than 50 cost-cutting measures. One of those was a proposal to ship the wastes out of state instead of treating them here.
A plan to ship hydrolysates from Newport, Ind., to a duPont facility in New Jersey has run into fierce opposition. Moreover, Kentucky environmental officials warned the Army this past summer that the change could jeopardize its permit for research, development and testing at the plant.
If the Army has to go through the permitting process again, it could delay the project three years or more, the state said. A decision from the Army is not expected until next year.
Public stops early plan
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Army’s plans to incinerate the chemical weapons made Madison County a battleground. Hundreds of people attended public meetings and berated Army officials.
Guy Patrick sang.
Patrick turned Everything’s Up to Date in Kansas City, a song from the musical Oklahoma!, into an incinerator protest song. He sang it for Army officials before hundreds of people at Clark-Moores Middle School.
“I remember feeling at the time the hopelessness of it all,” said Patrick, former head of the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He recalled thinking, “We don’t stand a chance here.”
But depot spokesman Dave Easter said it was the “public speaking-averse” Army engineers who were at a disadvantage. It was hard to get their highly technical points across when incineration opponents could send children to the microphone to say things like, “Can you promise that you won’t kill my mommy?”
“Community opposition in Kentucky is particularly strong and well organized,” a 1990 report from the General Accounting Office said. “The presence of such organized opposition … could impede the successful completion of the stockpile disposal program by April 1997.”
That it did. Under pressure from McConnell, other members of Congress and the public, the Pentagon agreed in 2002 to chemically neutralize the weapons instead of burning them. The decision united the former opponents, who now communicate smoothly through a citizens’ advisory board that includes all sides.
The completion deadline — originally 1994 — is history, too. Incinerators in Utah, Alabama and Arkansas are now on a pace to complete chemical destruction in 2016. A plant in Oregon won’t be done until 2017.
Litigation, fires, other technical problems and delays in funding have beset the program, which saw its cost balloon from about $1.8 billion to more than $32 billion.
An international treaty calls for destruction to be completed by April 2007, with a possible extension to April 2012. With only 40.7 percent of the U.S. stockpile destroyed, neither deadline will be met. But Russia, which has a bigger stockpile, is even further behind.
Work force still in school
The new plant will employ nearly 900 people at its peak, which should last about three years. Much of its technology will be robotic, and it will not be easy to find the highly skilled chemists, engineers and control room operators needed to run the plant.
In fact, officials from the incinerator site in Pine Bluff, Ark., came to Madison County this past spring with an offer: Come work for us so you can return to Kentucky with training for a potentially more important position later. Eight people applied and four were accepted, said Ron Hawley, operations general manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass.
The bulk of the hiring for the plant here won’t occur for about five years, he said.
That means some potential workers are in middle or high school now, so project officials are working with EKU, the University of Kentucky and county schools.
Rob Rumpke, a member of the citizens’ advisory board, said officials hope to develop an industrial skills academy, not just to train chemical plant workers, but also to make sure the county has a trained work force for other industries once the weapons are gone.
Reach Peter Mathews at (859) 231-3113, 1-800-950-6397 or pmathews@herald-leader.com.

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