McAlester ammo plant inspires confidence despite base closing review

Sunday, February 20th 2005, 2:05 pm
By: News On 6

McALESTER, Okla. (AP) _ If she hadn't built bombs for a living, Carol Kelley doubts she could have afforded her daughters' softball camp or swimming lessons.

``We would've probably ate a lot of taters and beans,'' said the 56-year-old, who raised two girls alone on her salary from the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant. ``We wouldn't have had a comfortable living. It was nothing high class, but they got to do the things they wanted to do.''

The plant and four Oklahoma military bases will be scrutinized this spring in the nation's first round of base closures since 1995. The ramifications of the process, which begins next month, are enormous for thousands of Oklahomans like Kelley.

Some analysts believe Army ammunition plants could be vulnerable, but residents here have reason for optimism: The plant is the only place that makes bombs for U.S. forces, and a 1986 law protects it by prohibiting the Army from contracting out the job.

``We feel like we do very well just based on the fact that our installation performs such a critical mission,'' said Brian Lott, head of a local association of plant supervisors.

There is a buzz in Washington, D.C., though, that Army ammunition plants could see their missions changed, said Loren Thompson, a defense analyst with the Arlington, Va.-based think tank, Lexington Institute.

``Among Oklahoma's bases, McAlester would be the most marginal,'' Thompson said. ``The Army is planning to close a lot of its ammunition plants.''

Bunkers lining the site's nearly 45,000 acres make up the nation's largest ammunition storage unit. But the plant's remote location is a weakness, Thompson said.

``Why would I want to have my main ammunition storage capacity in the middle of the country rather than near a port where you would need those things?'' he said.

Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said the remoteness provides an argument for keeping the depot intact.

``I still see McAlester as very secure,'' Cole said. ``We not only have to stockpile, but maintaining the production line there is important.''

The McAlester site, which resembles a wooded college campus, was chosen during World War II for its isolation from German threats on the East Coast and Japanese foes on the West Coast.

The plant has become more efficient in recent years, despite a production line that isn't much different from what it was when locals began making bombs in 1943.

Bomb casings are shipped to McAlester and filled with explosive powder before being stored or shipped off to war. The plant also makes shells and refurbishes explosives.

The base's mission is to provide 400 shipping containers of shells or bombs a day for the first 30 days of a war.

Since the war in Iraq began, the plant has been operating 20 hours a day, something it hasn't done since running round-the-clock during the Vietnam War.

In August, plant officials shut down a bomb-making line after blood tests showed workers who make ``bunker buster'' bombs had been exposed to TNT. Production resumed in January after nearly $350 million in improvements.

Despite the risks that come with being the nation's primary bomb-making site and the threat of being a target for terrorists, community support is palpable.

``The people of this community realize the importance of their role in the global war on terrorism _ not only in defending the nation, but in providing ammunition to a war fighter,'' said commanding officer Col. Gary Carney. ``Without ammunition, it would just be another parade.''

With more than 1,400 workers on the payroll, the plant is the area's largest employer.

People in this city of about 18,000 often choose between a career making bombs or guarding the state's most dangerous inmates at the penitentiary on the edge of town.

That was the choice Kelley's son-in-law Larry Johnson made when he applied to be a temporary worker at the ammunition plant four years ago.

``Those are about the two best jobs out here,'' said Johnson, a 37-year-old welder at the plant.

Most of the jobs at the plant do not require a college degree _ good news in a community where only about 13 percent of residents have completed college.

A starting annual salary of about $24,800, benefits and a four-day work week also make the jobs attractive in southeastern Oklahoma, where the per capita income is about $20,636, according to a 2002 Bureau of Economics study of Pittsburg County.

Most residents know somebody who works at the plant or who has worked there in the past. Many have hunted deer or wild turkey on the vast wooded acreage.

And they're well aware of the $168.4 million the base provides to the local economy.

``McAlester,'' said downtown barber Chris Lenardo, ``would blow away if they closed the plant.''