March 14, 2012
Weapons destruction plant completion is nearing halfway point
By Bill Robinson
Senior News Writer
RICHMOND — Construction of the chemical-weapons destruction plant at the Blue Grass Army Depot is 46 percent complete, the project’s citizen advisory board was told Tuesday.
Work on the massive complex will be 50 percent complete this summer, and all of it is expected to be under roof by Dec. 31, said Jeff Brubaker, the government’s site manager for the project, at the advisory panel’s quarterly meeting.
Enclosure of all buildings, including one with a 60-foot tall ceiling, will mean all large pieces of equipment in the 130,000 square-foot complex are in place, he said.
The nearly 1,200 miles of wiring in the plant gives an idea of its complexity, Brubaker said.
A 100-ton tank that will store nitrogen for the project arrived last month after a 1,800-mile road trip from Idaho and was set in place Feb. 23. A crane with a 500-ton lifting capacity is being assembled at the site to drop in place even heavier items.
Tom McKinney, project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass that is building and will operate the plant, said his firm is successfully meeting the challenge of working around the late arrival of some large components.
The project has gone 357 days and completed more than 1.8 million worker hours without a lost-time accident, and seven minor but reportable incidents have occurred in recent months.
Three times, workers donned welding goggles that may have contained metal particles that affected their eyes. Two suffered muscle strains that required more than first-aid treatment, one mashed a finger and another tripped over a 4-by-4 beam.
Employment for the project, including those who work at distant locations on its equipment, has dropped by 26 to 850. However, 809 are working onsite, an increase of more than 100.
About 12 percent of employees represent minorities, comparable to the Kentucky population, while nearly one in four are women, McKinney said.
While 57 percent of the workforce is from central Kentucky, 9 percent is from elsewhere in the state. The 34 percent from outside Kentucky include 30 people who work at other chemical-weapons destruction plants who will provide the project with the benefit of their experience, McKinney said.
Officials have stopped giving estimates of when construction will be complete, because that will depend of future funding levels.
President Obama’s budget request for 2013 would boost funding for the local project by nearly 85 percent, to more than $411 million, Craig Williams, the advisory panel’s co-chair, reported. Congress will have the final say on appropriations, but Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the Senate minority leader, is optimistic about securing full funding, Williams said.
The advisory group also presented its recommendations on the use of explosive detonation chambers to destroy about 15,000 problematic rounds of weapons that contain mustard agent unsuited for destruction in the largely automated plant.
If the volatile rounds became lodged in the plant, workers would have to retrieve them manually in a highly hazardous operation.
The detonation chambers are long-used technology that was employed to destroy about 3,000 similar mustard rounds, one at a time, at the Anniston, Ala., Army Depot.
The advisory panel supports its use here because workers could be endangered if the mustard rounds were run through the chemical neutralization plant. However, the group opposes use of the technology for nerve-agent weapons and wants environmental controls to exceed what is required by law, according to its statement.
Although the technology already has been used successfully for the same purpose, a year-long review will be conducted in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act before a decision would be made on its use here, Brubaker said. The technology also could not be used without approval from the Kentucky Department Environmental Protection and the Division of Waste Management, he said.
A news story published by the Associated Press in February 2010 that referred to the Army’s desire to dispose of chemical weapons in Kentucky and Colorado by “blowing them up” recently found new life on the Internet and raised concerns among readers.
Williams, who two years ago denounced the story as a distortion, Tuesday pointed to the advisory panel’s recommendations and the process outlined by Brubaker as proof officials are proceeding responsibly.
A familiar face not seen at the advisory group’s meetings in about six years was present for Tuesday’s meeting. George Shuplinkov, who formerly commanded the depot’s chemical activity as a lieutenant colonel, is now a civilian employed as the overall depot’s chief of staff. He represented Col. Brian Rogers, the depot commander, at the meeting.
Bill Robinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 624-6622.