THOMASTON, Maine — Which mode of transportation works best often depends on the product to be transported, and at Dragon Cement in Thomaston, the product is as unwieldy as anything.
Heavy, bulky and finicky against the elements, Dragon’s cement nonetheless has made it to foundations, bridges and buildings from Canada to southern New England, with most of Maine and Boston’s Big Dig in between. To achieve that kind of distribution, Dragon relies on all forms of transportation with the exception of the skies. According to Ray DeGrass, who manages Dragon’s iconic cement plant on Route 1 in Thomaston, distribution is the easy part.
“The challenge is not how we get our products out, but how we get our products in,” he said. “Most of our bulk materials, we’re bringing in from offshore.”
The company has long used ingredients shipped from afar, such as gypsum and iron ore. In 2003, Dragon began gradually phasing out its use of coal from Appalachia, which provided the intense heat needed to make cement. The company is now 100 percent reliant on a fuel product called petroleum coke, a byproduct of the oil refining process. Petcoke, as it is usually called, is created around the world, but Dragon’s recent purchases have come from Venezuela. After arriving by ship at Searsport, petcoke and many of Dragon’s other imported ingredients are brought to Thomaston by trucking contractors.
Railroads come into play for Dragon on the delivery side. As much as three-quarters of Dragon cement and concrete is transported by the company’s army of cement trucks. The rest is distributed through facilities in Portsmouth and Boston. Dragon loads its own specialized airtight train cars, and Eastern Maine Railroad hauls them to Rockland, where the cement is loaded onto a Dragon-owned barge bound for Boston Harbor.
“Anything that’s going to be distributed in Massachusetts, Connecticut and even Rhode Island goes to the Boston terminal,” said DeGrass. “We do that because of the state of the transportation infrastructure in Maine and where our product needs to go.”
DeGrass said that with better transportation options, namely railroads, Dragon could send its product to new markets.
“Rail is the one that could be improved the most,” he said. “We find it cumbersome and expensive and we find it slow. We don’t try to fix that. We’ve gone around it and found another way.”
DeGrass said he recognizes that the railroad companies themselves aren’t totally at fault for the core problem: antiquated and inefficient rail infrastructure.
“I do hope that the railroad business gets turned around, and not just for our sector of the industry,” he said. “The paper mills need it as well. Fixing the railroads would be a benefit for the state and business in general, but it’s going to take a lot of money.”
And money, particularly for public investments in transportation infrastructure, is in short supply. The Legislature has long struggled with how to improve the state’s roads, rails and ports. With Gov. Paul LePage’s stance against borrowing for infrastructure projects, much of the state’s available resources in the foreseeable future are spoken for, said Sen. Ronald F. Collins, R-York, who is Senate chairman of the Legislature’s Transportation Committee.
“Maine citizens have never refused us on a transportation bond … but Governor LePage doesn’t want us to issue any bonds,” said Collins. “We’re looking for additional efficiencies from within [MDOT] to fund the capital projects that will maintain the infrastructure of Maine.”
Whatever efficiencies are found will most likely be absorbed by the replacement later this year of the Memorial Bridge, which links Kittery and Portsmouth, N.H. Maine has pledged $35 million, which will be matched by the state of New Hampshire. The federal government will contribute another $20 million.
“Initially, that’s what we’re looking at right now in terms of investments,” said Collins.