The Blue Grass Army Depot invited members of the media to observe a munitions movement demonstrations and tour the buildings before the beginning of the chemical weapons deconstruction at the Blue Grass Chemical Agent-Destruction Pilot Plant (BGCAPP) in June, at which point, the area will no longer be accessible to visitors.
Ron Hink, the project manager for Bechtel Parsons Blue Grass said, "We did this because we want to make the community comfortable with our process and its safety."
The 523 tons of chemical warfare, which are housed in Madison County, sit on 250 acres across the total 14,000 acreage that is owned by the army depot.
Of those 523 tons, 55 percent is GB or "sarin" nerve agent, 30 percent is the VX nerve agent and 15 percent is a mustard nerve agent.
The VX agent is the most dangerous, and according to Craig Williams, the co-chair for the Kentucky Chemical Demilitarization Citizens' Advisory Commission and Chemical Destruction Community Advisory Board (CDCAB), "If one drop of VX agent the size of the eyeball on George Washington's face on the quarter were to wind up on your skin, a person would have only three minutes."
The demilitarization plant, where the munitions will be destroyed, is split up amongst two primary buildings, which consumes approximately 15 acres of the depot.
But before the munitions can get to the plant, the agent is taken out of the igloo and inventoried by the driver and signed off by the toxic material handlers to make sure they are taking the right amount -- and the right agent.
From there, the munitions are transferred onto an enhanced on site container (EONC) using a forklift.
An EONC typically weighs 19,000 pounds and ammunition can weigh up to 7,200 pounds. During the demonstration, the test agent weighed approximately 4,800 pounds. These transports run in good weather conditions and only in daylight in order to transfer the 103,000 weapons which will have to be destroyed by the year 2023.
The next stop of the tour was the Explosive Technology Destruction Facility, which houses the Static Detonation Chamber (SDC), which will eliminate the mustard munitions, and is the first agent operation to begin destruction in June.
The mustard agent munitions require a seperate disposal technology after a 2011 x-ray assessment of the chemical weapons confirmed that a majority of the mustard agent 155mm projectiles were solidifying, making those weapons unsuitable to go through the main plant.
This chamber will use thermal destruction to process the mustard weapons, and does so by boxes of munitions being fed into a heated detonation chamber, which holds a temperature of 1,000 degrees.
The solid then turns liquid, heating and pressurizing the agent causing it to rupture so that it can then turn to vapor, which is then destroyed by thermal decomposition.
David Webb, the deputy plant manager for explosive destruction technology for BGCAPP, described the process as "relatively simple."
Each munition has an approximate 27 minute destruction time, with a destruction of 6 munitions per hour. The chamber process takes about seven hours, averaging three and a half cycles a day, and is capable of destroying 36 munitions per day.
The chamber will destroy all of the 15,000 mustard projectiles and two, 3-gallon bottles from the Department of Transportation that contain the mustard agent.
Webb explained that the non-agent test that is being used for practicing the destruction process at the plant, is in fact harder to destroy than that of the normal chemical agent.
"Using this helps give better leveraging during the tests from the former two facilities that also housed the agent in Alabama and Utah," Webb said.
After touring the SDC, the group traveled next door to the main plant, where they were taken to the control and support building, where the demilitarization protective ensembles (DPEs), boots and masks are all held.
Carl Reagan, the main plant operation support manager, along with DPE support area operators, Wendi Shepherd and Austin Rickson, demonstrated putting on the uniform and explained how it works.
These ensembles, which resemble that of hazmat suits, are used when there is a maintenance requirement or emergency within the plant that requires such precaution.
Inside the inflatable suit, the DPE operator carries an oxygen tank backpack, with an emergency backup tank, cooling vest, radio, a heart monitor and regular jumpsuit underneath that altogether weighs 70 pounds.
Additionally, the DPE operators wear boots that are taped up with chem tape and five different layers of gloves that are also taped at the top so there is no chance of any contact with chemical agent.
They have an emergency dress time goal of one minute.
Reagan explained that before the operators are able to suit up, they are closely monitored for their heart rate, blood pressure and their hydration due to the element of overheating in one of the ensembles.
"It is a stressful process, both physically and mentally," Reagan said.
Before putting on the layers of protective gear, they conduct a full inspection of the suits as well as the backpacks. Once they are used, the worker is cut from their suit and it is sent to be disposed of with hazardous waste.
Shepherd, a Richmond resident for 20 years, said that her year and a half of working at the plant has been an "amazing ride so far."
She says that she has no trouble with being in the suit, laughing, noting that she isn't claustrophobic.
According to Shepherd, the operators train everyday, daily and nightly.
"It is really exciting to be a part of history, not only nationally but internationally," she said. "It has given me a sense of pride… This place is great for the city and the county."
As one of the more than forty percent of workers who will be without a job when the plant closes, Shepherd was asked what was next for her.
"That is what I am waiting to be told," she responded. "We are yet to see."
From there, while still inside the main plant, the media group went through five different pressurized air lock doors to the tray transfer room.
Here, the munitions will be taken on a conveyor belt from the unloading of the trucks, into the plant where it will be neutralized by the following of supercritical water oxidation to destroy both sarin and XV nerve agents in rockets.
During this process, the munitions are taken apart robotically and the nerve agent will be drained and separated from the explosive components.
From there, the nerve agent is mixed with hot water and sodium hydroxide to neutralize it. That product, hydrolysate, will be held and tested to make sure that it is destroyed before moving to the second phase.
This will be fed into the supercritical water oxidation (SWCO) unit, destroying organic materials. The SWCO will then put the hydrolysate to high temperatures that will break down into carbon dioxide, water and salt. The gases are filtered through High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) and carbon filters before going into the atmosphere.
The main plant is to begin operations this fall.
Once all the chemicals are destroyed, any areas in which chemical agent was processing will be heavily decontaminated and most likely have to be demolished, for example the main plant.
"If it can be destroyed there, it could be made there," Hink said. "In order to comply with all treaties, national and international, those kind of buildings will need to be taken down."
Of the 4 billion dollar current infrastructure, CDCAB co-chair Williams thinks that there will be a remaining infrastructure worth approximately $1.5 billion for use.
CDCAB is currently in the process of researching the economic development of the county, to determine what the structure could potentially house in the future.
Reach Taylor Six at 624-6623 or follow her on Twitter @TaylorSixRR.