Pasadena Firm Looks to Destroy Weapons, Then Help Rebuild Iraq

War may be hell, but its aftermath can be plenty lucrative.

Just ask Pasadena-based Parsons Corp. The engineering and design firm is rebuilding roads, schools and hospitals in Bosnia and Kosovo. It is dismantling chemical weapons plants and SS-20 missile delivery systems in Russia. And it has its eye on Iraq, eager to help resurrect that country's infrastructure after Saddam Hussein's regime leaves power -- by one means or another.

In fact, Parsons could be among the first U.S. companies to go into Iraq because of the expertise it has in neutralizing and eliminating chemical and other weapons. It has been undertaking such tasks for more than 20 years as part of the U.S. government's Cooperative Threat Reduction program.

Parsons has another edge when it comes to Iraq, as well: A branch of the company built the Baghdad subway in the early 1980s.

"The subway was never finished," recalls James Shappell, head of Parsons' transportation division. (The company, not surprisingly, doesn't have the blueprints for the underground system in its files anymore; U.S. officials came in and snatched up those renderings during the Persian Gulf War.)

Parsons, of course, is not totally focused on war-torn reaches of the world. Closer to home, it is expanding the Seattle-Tacoma airport and refurbishing New York's Williamsburg bridge.

Overall, Parsons today enjoys a bigger backlog of projects than ever. The firm, which is controlled by an Employee Stock Ownership Plan representing the holdings of 12,000 workers, boasts about $1.7 billion in annual sales.

Yet for Parsons -- as well as other California-based engineering giants such as Bechtel Corp. of San Francisco, Fluor Corp. of Aliso Viejo and AECom Inc. of Los Angeles -- volatile regions such as the Middle East hold particular promise.

"The buildup of the aerospace and defense industry after World War II is a big reason" so many industry leaders are clustered in California, says James McNulty, chairman of Parsons, which diversified from oil- and gas-related work to military projects when it built silos for the Minuteman missile in the 1950s.

Parsons' weapons-destruction work, meanwhile, began in 1980 with a Pentagon plan to destroy its nerve gas and other chemical weapons by burning them in incinerators on Johnston Atoll, a military installation in the South Pacific.

"The idea was to collect the chemicals and transport them all to Johnston," says John Scott, who heads Parsons' demilitarization programs. But state governments forbade transporting such chemicals across their borders, so an alternative plan was hatched to build eight incinerators in the U.S.

Four of those plants have been constructed, with Parsons running one and Bechtel another.

However, subsequent regulations banned incineration, according to Scott. So Parsons then developed a process for neutralizing chemical weapons through methods involving steam and hot water.

Parsons is now using that patented process in Russia, where the company is working with local contractors in a $1-billion program in western Siberia.

Such so-called threat reduction work will go on in the U.S. and Russia until 2012.

And more such contracts may be signed if Japan agrees to destroy the chemical weapons it left behind in China during World War II. Scott notes that some 2 million weapons are stockpiled there, mainly in the Manchuria area.

Going into a battle zone is hardly risk free. In 1996, Parsons Chairman Len Pieroni died in a plane crash in Bosnia along with Commerce Secretary Ron Brown. They were looking for projects to help rebuild that war-ravaged province.

Parsons eventually landed the job. "But first we had to clear the minefields, and the booby traps from schools and hospital buildings," Scott says. Surprisingly, in a day when it seems that computers are used for just about everything, mine- clearing is still done by hand.

Sometimes, things are too dicey for Parsons. Last year, the company declined to bid on a job to rebuild the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital of Kabul. "We would have had to build housing for our workers that protected them against rocket-propelled grenades," McNulty explains.

Parsons also would be busy plugging away on electric power plants in Lebanon and water facilities in Syria, but two years of violence and suicide bombings in nearby Israel have stalled developments in those countries.

Despite the hazards, Parsons is looking ahead to work in post-Saddam Iraq -- assuming U.S. companies get the opportunity, that is. McNulty, who had a 24-year career in the Army before coming to Parsons in 1988 (and succeeding Pieroni as chief executive in '96) muses that "if the European Union funds the rebuilding of Iraq, the competitive position of U.S. companies will be less."

"But if the U.S. leads that rebuilding," he adds, "there will be plenty of work for us because the infrastructure has been left to decay."

It is a bit grim, but Parsons' formula is clear: Decay today, dollars tomorrow.

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James Flanigan can be reached at jim.flanigan@latimes.com.

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