Plastic Mats Support Heavy Equipment with Minimal Environmental Impact

Coastal erosion? No problem. Alien insect invasions? Who cares. Receding glaciers? It's all good.

FAIRBANKS, Alaska #151; Coastal erosion? No problem. Alien insect invasions? Who cares. Receding glaciers? It's all good.

While climate change can invoke no shortage of gloomy environmental scenarios, warming winters in Alaska are proving to be a financial boon for a Fairbanks company that sees a growing market for its product, the owners said. Compositech, founded in 2001 by two Fairbanks men, rents and sells heavy-duty plastic mats that interlock to form temporary roads capable of supporting massive equipment.

The mats, sold under the brand name Dura-Base, can be used on various soil types, including tundra, wetlands and sensitive tidal marshes.

For companies that traditionally wait until the frozen time of the year to build ice roads that melt away in the spring, the mats are a handy alternative because they can be laid out during any season and work can go forward, said Dennis Swarthout, chief executive of Compositech, the Dura-Base distributor for Alaska and the Russian Far East.

"The window of opportunity is growing shorter because of the warming temperatures," said Swarthout. "With ice roads you're constantly guessing with Mother Nature. You usually have a month time-period where you're standing around waiting for it to get cold. We take away that risk."

Oil companies operating on the North Slope have been the biggest customers so far. They use the mats to roll heavy equipment across tundra to access riverbanks, staging areas and other places where works gets done. Alyeska Pipeline Service Co. invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the mats, said Jim Lagomarsino, the company's Fairbanks-based construction manager for rivers and flood plains. "They're a time saver and a money saver," Lagomarsino said.

A typical ice road can cost $100,000, he said. Each 8-by-14-foot, thousand-pound mat costs $1,900 to $2,300 apiece and can last indefinitely, Swarthout said.

"They paid for themselves within a year," Lagomarino said.

Gary Schultz, state natural resource manager, said he has issued permits for the installation of Dura-Base mats and has found that they leave minimal lasting impact on vegetation. They're good for relatively short-distance projects but probably wouldn't be economical for a road tens of miles in length, Schultz said.

Besides oil, other types of companies, as well as some city governments and the military are becoming interested in the mats, which are manufactured in Louisiana by Composite Mat Solutions, Swarthout said.

In Girdwood, on the tidal flats across from the Tesoro gas station, an electrical contractor has laid down a winding path of mats from the Seward Highway to the shore to access a power line on the edge of Knik Arm. The tides have eroded the coast and the power line needs to be replaced.

Normally, the work would take place only when the swamp is frozen solid. But the mats have allowed the project to move ahead in mid-March, with recent daytime temperatures in the 40s.

"We wouldn't be here if we didn't have them," said Eric Nielsen, foreman for City Electric. City Electric rented the mats at $8 a piece per day, he said.

On a recent afternoon, Nielsen stood on the mats next to a 150,000-pound crane that was driving a huge piling into the mud. A bulldozer and other heavy equipment waited nearby. Surrounding the mats, which formed a road leading to an industrial pad, were pools of mucky, brown water with grass popping up.

"I was a little skeptical at first," he said.

But Nielsen's company, a subcontractor on the Girdwood project for Chugach Electric, also used the mats in South Anchorage last year on another project and they performed well, he said.

"The cost is a pain in the butt," he said. But the mats provide certainty and can end up saving money, Nielsen said.

If the ice road you've built melts or gets delayed by a month because of warm temperatures, especially on a multimillion-dollar project, it can end up costing much more than the price of renting the mats, Nielsen said.

"With these, you know what your expense is" and you can plan accordingly, he said.

Compositech is trying to grow its markets beyond Alaska. The company recently sold thousands of mats to a company doing oil work on Sakhalin Island in the Russian Far East, Swarthout said.

In addition to eight full-time employees in Fairbanks, the company has two overseas agents, one based in Singapore and Australia, and the other in Washington, D.C., who market the product in Kuwait and Europe, Swarthout said.

Besides Dura-Base mats, the company also sells a variety of industrial flooring products. Compositech had gross revenue of more than $3 million last year and expects to double that next year, Swarthout said.

"We're expanding worldwide," said Craig Simon, Swarthout's business partner. "We're growing pretty quickly."

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