Depot Jobs Down the Road

Sep 24, 2012

The final disposal of chemical munitions stored at the Bluegrass Army Depot is years away.  Still, local leaders are already considering the economic potential of the Madison County installation once the clean-up is complete.  It’s a challenge, but there’s also optimism the site can remain a major employer.  The clean-up’s timeline remains tentative, at best.  Assuming Congress fully funds the project, over the next decade, some one-thousand people will work to eliminate the chemical weapons stockpile at the Bluegrass Army Depot.

  The entire munitions disposal program from start to finish carries a five point four billion dollar price tag.   Since the Depot will be the last in the nation to rid itself of the weapons, Richmond Chamber of Commerce President Mendi Goble says, when the work’s complete, those employees will have nowhere else to go.

“A lot of these guys and gals have gone from place to place shutting these places down, you know what I’m saying.  And so now, that’s gonna be finished,” said Goble.

Plus, the federal government’s already scaling back in defense spending.  With military operations winding down in Afghanistan, the Depot is handling fewer munitions.  Some 300 layoffs have already been proposed.  All this worries Richmond City manager Jimmy Howard.

“I mean nobody wants to see the depot closed, of course, and I’m not suggesting that I’ve seen or know anything that’s it’s going to be closed.  But that’s what they’re guarding against of course is to stay needed and productive,” says Howard.

A facility now under construction will use chemicals to neutralize nerve agents and mustard gas.  And, once those weapons are destroyed, the Army wants to demolish the state-of-the-art structure and the site decontaminated.  Then, Craig Williams with the Chemical Weapons Working Group, says it should be attractive to new industry.

“It wouldn’t be any different from the industrial parks out at Duncannon Road.  Because they’ve never been exposed to it in the first place, I don’t see why anyone would have a concern about that simply because it’s in proximity to where the weapons were processed,” said Williams.

While the chemical agent destruction pilot plant will be gone, the site should remain attractive to industry.   For example, Williams says a transportation, sewage and electrical infrastructure will remain.

“There is innumerable support buildings.  The utilities that have been brought into that site are enormous and basically what you would have if the munitions disposal building is torn down is a mini industrial park,” added Williams.

Richmond City Manager Jimmy Howard adds those facilities could also enable the expansion of factories already at work in Madison County and around Kentucky.   Automakers like Toyota, Ford and General Motors and their suppliers have facilities around the Commonwealth.   Howard says they might be interested in the depot.

“If there’s anything, and I’m saying that because we have so much industry here that’s automobile related.  Perhaps that would be a route to go,” said Howard.

In far western Kentucky, the community of Paducah is wrestling with a similar challenge.  For years, the Gaseous Diffusion Plant has enriched uranium for the federal government.   The Department of Defense hopes to complete a clean-up of contaminated soil and water in 20-19.  Kentucky Public Radio reporter Angela Hatton says they’re also searching for a new tenant.

“They would think that they would be some kind of chemical company that would be a non-uranium, a non nuclear chemical company that would use those sites for their own, their own products,” said Hatton.

More than a thousand workers remain on the payroll at the U-S Enrichment Corporation operation.  Hatton says most local residents are more concerned about employment than long term environmental problems.

“I think the overarching concern in the community is jobs because 12 hundred people if USEC leaves, it’s12 hundred people that don’t have a job,” explained Hatton.

Like their counterparts in Paducah, government and business leaders in Madison County are also making plans.  They recently launched a formal, long-term economic study.  It’ll gather data on what’s available at the depot and how it can be used by private industry once the federal government is finished with the facility.  Part-one of the study should be available in about a year.