Workers have exit strategy as Tooele chemical weapons plant nears an end

Published: Wednesday, April 25 2012 6:48 p.m. MDT

TOOELE — It's only a slight exaggeration to say a workforce that swelled at one point to more than 1,000 people will celebrate losing their jobs during ceremonies on Thursday.

Utah's 23rd Army Band will play; a high school choir will sing; officials will speak; and workers and the Tooele community at large will celebrate the beginning of the end at the Deseret Chemical Depot southeast of Tooele.

Military and a mostly civilian workforce hired to incinerate the nation's aging stockpile of chemical weapons at the Tooele Chemical Agent Disposal Facility finished its primary task in January inside a complex the size of a municipal power plant.

Now, workers there are incinerating pieces of the plant itself until only the last furnace is left. That furnace will be chemically decontaminated, and the remains will be sent to hazardous waste landfills. The 13,700 tons of chemical agent, more than 1 million individual munitions and bulk containers and the incineration plant will be gone.

And so will the work.

But the workforce knew coming in their jobs weren't long-term, and now a challenge is keeping an adequate staff around long enough to finish up. If anything, the work lasted longer than expected.

"When I hired on, they said we were going to be done in four years. It went to seven years within the first month. I've been here 14-and-a-half years now," said Mark Mesesan, spokesman for the operation's principal contractor, URS.

But running out of work is the mark of success for this project. "That's just unfortunately part of a sunset industry like this," Mesesan said.

Mary Chappell, Human Resource transition specialist for URS, said the company has kept workers from leaving early by positioning them for jobs that don't yet exist elsewhere within the company, like weapons demilitarization operations in Colorado and Kentucky.

URS also has programs to prepare people for other jobs using money included in the federal contract that funds the Tooele facility. Workers can enroll in any accredited education program, regardless of whether it applies to their current job, and be reimbursed for $10,000 in education expenses per year.

For senior accountant Robert Christiansen, who has been with the project more than four years, that meant finishing both an MBA and a master's degree in accounting.

Human resource generalist Josh Hancey has been working with the Tooele project for five years. "Although the exact dates weren't known when I hired on, it was definitely known it was going to be closing down." He finished his MBA at Westminster last year but hasn't decided whether he will try and find another job with URS or do something else when his Tooele job ends.

Job reductions are on a schedule that is announced nine months ahead of reductions in force. Workers in the first reduction wave in January and March got their notices last fall. "The schedule today says we lose 50 in October, we lose 150 in January, then we lose over 600 between us and our subcontractor between April and June next year," Chappell said.

The group plans a job fair in October to prepare for that major wave of departures next year. About 100 employers are expected to participate. "We're showing them our de-staffing plans to help them coordinate the timing of their openings," Chappell said.

"It'll take the plant almost another year to finish what they're doing," Army spokeswoman Alaine Grieser said. "We turn over the keys in July 2013." All activity related to the demilitarization program is scheduled to end in 2014.

E-mail: sfidel@desnews.com

Twitter: SteveFidel

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