Radford ammo plant to get $240 million upgrade
The Roanoke Times
After 90 days as the new operator of the Radford Army Ammunition Plant, a contractor is gearing up to build one of the largest industrial facilities the region has seen in recent memory: a $240 million facility for producing nitrocellulose, the base ingredient for all military ammunition.
BAE Systems took charge of the government-owned propellant plant from former plant operator Alliant Techsystems on July 1. BAE has since addressed an acid leak on its first day of operational control — an incident that the federal government is still investigating — and recalled hundreds of former Alliant workers.
Looking ahead, BAE could in 2013 break ground on the construction of the new federally funded nitrocellulose facility to replace an aging facility still in use, a three-year project, officials said.
In a recent interview, BAE's most senior on-site official spoke in upbeat terms about the company's first few months.
BAE "hit all of our marks that we expected to hit," General Manager Bill Barnett said.
BAE decided, at least to start, to use basically the same work force and procedures as Alliant. BAE determined the plant, which opened in 1941, during World War II, needed "major maintenance," which BAE is undertaking, Barnett said. Barnett said BAE intends to apply what he called the "right" standards for facility upkeep.
In spite of the inherited facility issues, BAE is on track to achieve production rates, Barnett said. BAE Systems took control of the facility from Alliant in a "hot hand off" on July 1, meaning the plant was producing propellant as the transfer took place, Barnett said. While some product was in the pipeline at the transfer of authority, BAE had produced 1 million to 1.2million pounds of propellant solely through its efforts as of Sept. 6, BAE spokeswoman Alicia Gray said.
The strategic facility is one of the largest and oldest employers in the New River Valley and the only domestic producer of military-grade nitrocellulose. U.S. officials have described the Radford plant as "five factories in one producing nitrocellulose, nitroglycerin, medium-caliber ammunition, solvent-based propellants, and solvent less propellants."
On BAE's first day on the job, acid and fumes leaked from an overheating tank in the nitrocellulose production area for an hour and 50 minutes, bringing out various first-responders.
Robert Stoots, head of the arsenal's employee union, said two workers underwent a "precautionary" medical check after exposure to fumes, one of them at a hospital. They are fine, Stoots said.
The nitrocellulose facility was not in operation at the time of the incident, but has since been repaired and resumed production, BAE has said.
Charles Saks, an Army spokesman, declined to comment on the incident, citing the ongoing investigation.
Of 650 people Alliant let go, between 450 and 500 now work for BAE, said Stoots, president of USW Local 8-495. Virtually all ex-Alliant staff are expected to eventually be employed by BAE, said Stoots, though the hiring has been delayed by the facility maintenance, repairs related to the acid leak and other issues, he said.
The union-represented workers are scheduled to vote on a proposed first contract with BAE today. Results are scheduled to be released Friday.
"I feel good about the contract offer that's in front of the membership," said Stoots, 53, of Parrott, who has been the union president since 2008 and is a longtime plant employee.
Stoots said Barnett "seems to be a man of his word up to this point."
In addition, Barnett is visible on plant grounds interacting with workers. "That's a good sign. Management is listening to the lower-level people," Stoots said.
Stoots said he doesn't know BAE's long-term vision for the Radford plant, but believes it intends to expand and create more jobs for the area.
BAE's arrival represents the first significant change in corporate leadership in the government facility's 71-year history. The former operator, Minnesota-based Alliant, was the parent company through a 1995 acquisition of Hercules Inc., which ran the plant since its opening in 1941.
BAE Systems, the Virginia-based subsidiary of a British defense contractor, won a 10-year contract worth $850 million which, with extensions, could place the company in control until 2037. For reasons of U.S. national security, it operates semi-independently of the British parent corporation.
The Army, which chose BAE, has sent a top official to check in.
Gen. Dennis Via of the Army Materiel Command, the military's provider of weapons, equipment and support for soldiers, visited in late August for briefings and tours, according to an article on the home page of the U.S. Army.
Via, a Martinsville native, had "candid conversation with employees" and also urged management to modernize facilities for the long term, the article said.