Cement imports ebb, flow with construction season

Posted: Tuesday, July 23, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The second of four scheduled cement ships from South Korea arrived in Anchorage on July 11.

With the whir of construction activities in the state, Wes Vander Martin has his fingers crossed, hoping four ships are enough this year.

Vander Martin, operations manager for Alaska Basic Industries Inc., is part of a team that tries to forecast construction levels in the state, and order cement accordingly.

Alaska Basic Industries and its sister company, Anchorage Sand & Gravel, are part of the North Dakota-based MDU Resources Group, which has similar companies in Hawaii and the Lower 48.

Alaska Basic Industries is the sole cement supplier for much of Alaska, so monitoring the economy and accurately predicting how much cement is needed in the state is important.

Too much cement and the company is stuck with storage fees. Too little, and construction projects come to a halt.

''In either case it's bad for us,'' Vander Martin said. ''We've been on both sides of the fence.''

Most times, however, the company's predications are spot on.

Last year, a spate of huge construction projects warranted five cement ships. Each 550-foot-long ship contains more than 26,000 tons of cement. The cement is off-loaded by huge vacuums and conveyors to silos near the Port of Anchorage, then shipped by truck, rail or barge to companies and construction sites around the state.

Each cement ship takes 10 or 11 days to empty, with workers off-loading it around the clock, Vander Martin said.

Although the terms cement and concrete often are used interchangeably, cement is actually an ingredient of concrete. Concrete is basically a mixture of sand and gravel or crushed stone; the paste is water and cement, which is made by heating raw materials containing alumina and calcium and pulverized into a fine powder.

Cement comprises from 10 to 15 percent of the concrete mix, by volume. Through a process called hydration, the cement and water harden and bind the aggregates into a rocklike mass.

Years ago, cement was produced in Alaska. But in recent years, the state's cement has come from China, South Korea, Puerto Rico, or Thailand, depending on market price and availability, Vander Martin said.

Last year, cement that came from Thailand drew complaints from some contractors because it set up too fast, Vander Martin said.

Tom Frohlich, business manager for the Plasterers & Cement Masons Local 867 in Anchorage, said his union has some 130 members who work with concrete. Another 20 to 30 percent of cement masons statewide are nonunion, Frohlich said.

Concrete work has been on the rise for years, and has been reflected in the union's membership, which has increased about 15 percent in the last five years.

''Alaska is still a boom-and-bust state, but we're growing at a nice pace,'' Frohlich said.

Cement technology has improved over the years, allowing concrete to be poured year round, he said.

New hotels, homes, commercial buildings, roads, bridges and military projects have called for increased cement, Frohlich said.

Two years ago, according to Vander Martin, an entire cement ship was needed for runway and housing work at Eielson Air Force Base outside Fairbanks. Last year, a record 50,000 square feet of concrete was poured in one day at the new Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in South Anchorage. The previous Alaska record had been about 30,000 square feet of poured concrete in one day for the federal building in downtown Anchorage.

Gene Moe had a hand in both of those projects, as well as countless others throughout the state during his 56 years as a cement mason.

Moe, former owner of M&M Concrete Inc., said he helped pour concrete for at least 70 percent of the buildings in downtown Anchorage, and had worked on everything from village basketball courts to the Sullivan Arena. He's poured concrete for 13 Alaska hockey rinks and at many of the buildings on the North Slope.

''Cement is an interesting thing, you know,'' said Moe. ''Without it you couldn't build Alaska.''

Moe has traveled around the world, and has poured concrete in several foreign countries.

''I enjoy looking at their flowers and their concrete,'' Moe said.

In concrete technology, Moe said, Alaska is at least 15 years ahead of Scandinavian countries that share similar climates. And Alaska masons are as good as they get, he said.

Moe turned over the company to his son and daughter two years ago, but still works nearly every day pouring concrete to ''keep in shape.''

Now 72, Moe credits the years of hard work in helping save his life two years ago when he was attacked by a bear on Kodiak Island on a hunting trip.

Moe, severely mauled by the bruin, killed it with a hunting knife.

''My life was saved by the grace of God and concrete.''



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