A place can can get into the bones of a community. It can define its landscape. It can become a part of its culture – a feature in its folklore.
The Bluegrass Army Depot (BGAD) in central Kentucky has been a fixture of the Madison County landscape and a centerpiece in Madison County culture since the early 1940s. The 15,000 acre site dominates the scenery between Richmond and Berea (Madison County’s two largest cities) and harbors federally protected plant-life. It is one of its largest employers, and is a prominent feature in the area’s folklore . UFOs, secret weapons and alien technology are only a few of the common rumors.
Oh yeah, and it’s home to more than 500 tons of chemical weapons.
Chemical Weapon Storage
BGAD has been a chemical weapon storage facility since 1942. Although the US canceled its chemical weapons program in the 1960s, 44 of BGAD’s 900 storage bunkers contain them – many of which are 60s era rockets, the rest date from WWII .
Dozens of plans for their destruction or removal from the depot have been proposed over the decades to no avail – chemical weapons are difficult to destroy or move safely. But there is an end in sight. Since 1997, the US has destroyed 90% of its chemical weapons and BGAD is one of only two facilities that have ongoing destruction programs. A facility to neutralize the mustard, sarin and VX agents contained in 101,000 rockets and artillery pieces stored at the depot is currently under construction. It will be complete in 2020, at which point the 3 year process to neutralize the weapons (the process breaks the chemicals down into carbon dioxide, water, and salt) will begin.
Madison County Landscape
Berea Road/Highway 421 links Madison County’s two largest cities, Richmond and Berea. As one travel south from Richmond toward Berea, commercial development suddenly stops on the left, just past Clark-Moores Middle School. For about five miles, commercial and manufacturing development is crowded on the right before giving way to farmland, while the other side of the highway is dominated by seemingly unspoiled, rolling hills and fields of grazing cattle – idyllic except for the tall razor wire fencing marked “US PROPERTY NO TRESPASSING.” The bucolic scene is also occasionally interrupted by guarded and barricaded entrances, stopped rail cars in the distance, and flood lights. To the unsuspecting, the tableau is at the very least bizarre, if not a little creepy.
Oddly enough, a by-product of cordoning off the land to all by cattle was the creation of the perfect habitat for a rare and endangered species of clover. Running Buffalo Clover is a federally endangered species that grows in only three geographical areas. It requires periodic disturbance and a somewhat open habitat to successfully flourish. The depot’s decision to lease acreage to farmers for grazing cattle, resulted in the periodic disturbances required by the clover.
Madison County Culture
The US Army is not known for its transparency and its operations at BGAD are no different. It is not difficult to imagine more is going on behind the razor wire fence and guarded entrances, and Madison County residents have done just that. Rumors abound regarding leaks (some substantiated), the purpose behind the grazing cattle, and other mysteries. In recent years, the depot has made an effort to court the good will of the community by opening the land for seasonal hunting and fishing, a golf course, and a “Living Memorial” to Kentucky service members killed in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Additionally, several historical sites are enclosed in the BGAD compound. A portion of the Battle of Richmond battlefield is behind BGAD’s fence. The depot allows a reenactment to take place on BGAD property each year. A portion of Daniel Boone’s Trace also lies on BGAD property. The depot allows (and encourages) civilians to tour the facility including its grounds. There is little evidence that BGAD is not a good steward of Madison County’s history. It is possible that the battleground and wagon trail have been preserved because BGAD has prevented development of the land. A scenic overlook allows motorists to view the battefield and wagon trail from the highway, as well as read the seven historical markers located there.
Despite the small percentage of acreage dedicated to the storage of chemical weapons, leaks and fear of leaks have punctuated the local news and collective psyche for decades. Rumors of undocumented leaks persist and there is at least one documented case. In 1979, 40 people with residences near the depot were hospitalized due to a toxic cloud released at BGAD. The army denied the incident for weeks. This denial likely compounded fears that the army detected leaks in the past and did not notify the public and that it could happen again.
BGAD’s lack of transparency has probably also contributed to a persistent rumor about the cattle seen on BGAD property. The official story is that the depot leases unused land to area farmers for grazing, however, the rumor is that the cattle are actually an early detection precaution in case underground bunkers leak. The theory is that if a leak occurred, the cattle would quickly be effected by the deadly gas giving BGAD personnel a chance to respond to the leak before the situation could escalate.
Even more far-fetched are the rumors of UFOs, alien technology and other top secret goings-on. It has been claimed that BGAD stores UFOs in its underground bunkers and/or engineers at the depot are using alien technology to “reverse-engineer” advanced flight technology for the government. It has also been claimed that the depot is a testing facility for top-secret cutting edge flight technology of all kinds.
The culture of fear and suspicion is introduced to Madison County children early. Not only are they exposed to rumors, but schools in Madison County are required to have emergency response plans for a chemical weapons leak. Plans range from evacuation to containment. As a substitute teacher in Madison County, I experienced practice drills for both types first hand. Some schools keep a number of buses on hand to evacuate students, and practice loading and unloading. Others corral students into gymnasiums or other large rooms then seal air vents with plastic and duct tape.
Madison County Economy
Not only is the depot a fixture of the landscape and local culture, it is a cornerstone of Madison County’s economy. The depot has an annual operating budget of more than $200 million dollars – that is $200 million dollars Madison County would lose if the depot were to close or move. It is also one of the county’s largest employers. Upwards of 13,000 people work at the depot, and its employees earn an average salary almost double the county average. For all the times BGAD has found itself in the news because of leaks or rumors, it makes headlines just as often because Kentucky politicians continually advocate for the depot and its economic importance.
What happens when the chemical weapons are gone?
It is unclear if the destruction of chemical weapons at the depot will effect jobs or operating costs at the depot, however, a possible 300 person lay-off was announced only a few weeks ago. It is also unclear how it will effect the community in other ways. Will the landscape change (downsized territory? more cattle – which could potentially effect the clover)? Will there be a generation gap between Madison County kids who practiced chemical weapons drills and those who didn’t (like the gap that exists between those who remember a time before TV or the internet or who remember when corporal punishment and segregation were legal in public schools)? Will the rumors of UFOs and top-secret technology fade with the fear of leaks and disaster? Only time will tell.