Seventeen months after a deadly explosion shook southern Nevada, a manufacturer of a key rocket fuel component reopened Friday near Cedar City with a new name and assurances of safety.
At the end of a ceremony that included patriotic music and speeches in front of several hundred spectators, the company sent off the first truckload of ammonium perchlorate produced at the facility.The chemical is considered vital to the nation's defense and space industries.
Although the company still is mired in legal battles over the cause of the May 1988 blast that killed two people and injured 326, state officials said they are happy to welcome it to Utah.
"Economic development is one of the most important things we do in a growing society," said Gov. Norm Bangerter. "It helps all Utahns have a better life."
The company's new name is Western Electro Chemical Co., or WECCO. At the time of the accident, it was known as Pacific Engineering and Production Co. of Nevada, or PEPCON, and was in Henderson, Nev.
Keith Rooker, a member of WECCO's board of directors, gave little explanation for the name change, other than that the lender that financed the new plant "expressed a strong desire to have a name and board largely independent of Pacific Engineering."
The new plant comprises 22 buildings in a remote desert region about 15 miles northwest of Cedar City. The company has hired 130 people, most of whom already lived in southern Utah, and is ready to produce 20 million pounds of ammonium perchlorate yearly.
WECCO officials still believe a leak in a natural gas line caused the Henderson accident, although a report by the Clark County Fire Department said a welder's torch was to blame.
Rooker said the new facility is safe because it is not built near high-pressure gas lines. "The cause (of the explosion) is no longer here," he said.
Officials from Cedar City and Iron County appear satisfied that the facility will be safe.
"It would be foolish not to make a firm like WECCO welcome in our county," said County Commissioner Jim Robinson.
Cedar City Mayor Robert Linford said the city was anxious to acquire jobs. "We never perceived we were bringing something in that would be dangerous to our people," he said.
Iron County has suffered several years of economic depression.
As a reminder of the Henderson accident, the company named two of the 22 buildings after the two men who lost their lives.
Rooker said WECCO plans to develop an industrial park around the new plant, attracting other aerospace companies. The company bought 4,800 acres surrounding its 217-acre plant.
Rooker said the company came to Cedar City because of the availability of land and workers and because of the state's eagerness to have it.
"It's unusual to have access to a large site that is remote and has a highly skilled work force," he said. "We are very hopeful this will be a major location for the aerospace industry."
After the Henderson explosion, Bangerter called a special session of the Legislature to make public funds available to entice the company to Utah. The company never took advantage of the offer but said it was evidence of the state's eagerness to welcome it.
Vice President Dan Quayle was invited to attend the opening Friday but declined because of other duties in Washington.
NASA officials attended the opening, including Col. Jim Adamson, an astronaut. "I can't begin to tell you what a keen interest astronauts have in ammonium perchlorate," Adamson said.