Edited by Ted
Cement Shortage Rains on Home Building
Creating a Wetland Bank, Builder Faces a
Horsehair in Old Plaster May be
Arsenic-Laden, Investigator Warns
California Passes Workers Comp
New Lightning-Resistant Flexible Gas Line Shines
Cement Shortage Rains on
Home Building Parade
The red-hot home-building industry cooled off only slightly
in late spring, as buyer demand stayed strong despite small
up-ticks in mortgage rates. But the rosy picture was marred by
high prices and scarcities in the market for basic materials.
With steel and wood prices already a concern, spring brought
new worries: surging fuel prices and a sudden, critical
interruption in the supply of cement.
If oil prices stay high, rising transportation costs will put
pressure on every U.S. industry. But for U.S. builders, the
cement shortage poses a more immediate concern. Starting in
Florida in April, spreading into Atlantic and Gulf Coast states
by May, and reaching into some heartland states by June,
shortages of concrete have idled ready-mix workers and wreaked
havoc on construction schedules.
A report from
Portland Cement Association economist Ed Sullivan identified
several root causes for the cement shortage. Mild weather kept
the pace of construction strong through winter and spring,
drawing down cement stockpiles. Stepped-up purchases by China,
whose booming economy has tapped out that country's sizable
domestic cement production capacity, drew off a growing
proportion of the global cement supply. (Leaders in China are
pushing massive development projects as the country prepares to
host the 2008 Olympics.) And a scarcity of global shipping
created a critical bottleneck. European and South American
producers can make enough cement to satisfy the most pressing
U.S. import needs, but ships that previously carried that trade
have switched to Pacific routes, where the heavy Chinese import
demand has caused shipping rates to double.
Chinese demand is not likely to slacken, say experts. Trends in
the past decade have left the country in a strong cash
position. And with growth pushing China into greater
prominence, any move the country does make is sure to have
Chinese imports of cement for its massive
industrial buildup have led to
interruptions in U.S. import deliveries
this summer. The partially completed locks
(top) are part of China's continuing Three Gorges
hydroelectric dam project, which will take 36 million
yards of concrete and 354,000 tons of rebar to
complete. Above left, a worker carries cement for the
project in a wicker pack-basket. Above right, the
300-foot cement storage dome at the Providence, R.I.,
facilities of Glens Falls Lehigh Cement, a U.S.
importer jointly owned by the German firms Heidelberg
Cement and Dykerhoff AG, stands ready for a shipment of
Turkish cement. Eighty percent of America's domestic
cement production and almost all its East Coast cement
import facilities are foreign-owned.
Mexicali blues. As U.S.
concrete firms scanned the horizon for inbound cement ships,
chief economist John Bloom of Mexican cement manufacturer Cemex
sounded off about a possible overland rescue. The world's
largest cement supplier, Cemex is also the third-largest U.S.
producer of cement, with American plants producing about 14
million tons annually. (Foreign-owned cement companies account
for fully 80% of America's 112-million-ton domestic
production.) But since 1990, Cemex has been saddled with
anti-dumping penalties imposed by the U.S. Commerce Department.
In mid-May, Bloom told the Reuters news service that the firm's
U.S. plants were operating at full production, but that its
Mexican plants could supply more cement if the import duties
were lifted. Bloom was in Washington, D.C., in early June for
negotiations with the Commerce Department, but neither side had
any public comment.
What's next? Bloom and other
informed observers don't see any quick end in sight to the
concrete shortage. They say making up the global shortfall in
ocean shipping could take two years or more, depending on how
fast shipyards can get new boats in the water (and how fast
existing older vessels wear out). Domestic producers are
running at full capacity, and new plants would take years to
build even without the inevitable regulatory and political
But that hasn't stopped politicians from praying for a quick
fix. Florida congressman Mark Foley wrote a letter in May to
Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, urging him to investigate the
South Florida shortages, according to the Miami
Herald. In an election year, said Foley hopefully,
"anything that hurts the economy won't be tolerated for
Creating a Wetland
Bank, Builder Faces a Tough Slog
If you think it's hard to get a permit to destroy a wetland,
try getting permission to make one. That's what Michigan
builder Todd Bennett wants to do: Take the trees off a 160-acre
parcel of wooded upland, excavate the sandy soil for fill,
expose the water table, and populate the moist result with
wetland plants and animals. The final product would be a
thriving wetland environment that could serve as a "wetland
mitigation bank," selling mitigation credits to builders and
developers whose environmental permits require them to replace
the wetlands destroyed by their work.
"Instead of builders running around building a one-acre wetland
here, a half-acre there, to replace a little spot they graded
for a driveway or something," Bennett explains, "we take a
large area and turn it into a big marsh, where you have more
wetland plants, more animals, more cleaning of the water and
everything else. We would save all kinds of money for the
taxpayers on the paperwork, and everybody agrees that it is
much more valuable ecologically to have one large tract of
wetland than a bunch of small ones."
A former wooded upland in
Michigan is now a protected marsh, in a plan to create
a wetland mitigation bank for builders and
But Bennett's project would be the first privately built and
managed wetland bank in the state. And in the words of
environmental engineer Rollin Reineck, who consults on the
project for Bennett, "The hardest part is not the technical
part — the excavation, the hydrology, or the biology.
It's dealing with all the bureaucrats."
"I have more than $100,000 into this thing with legal fees,
engineering fees, and all the rest," says Bennett. At one
point, regulators fined him when his temporary road went over
the edge of its right-of-way. "I told them that we were taking
the road out and turning the whole thing into swamp," he said.
"They didn't care."
One stumbling block was a clause in Michigan law that would
have made the area a regulated wetland before it officially
received its bank status and could sell credits. "If something
stopped the certification then," says Reineck, "the property
could be locked up forever and the investment would be lost.
The state guys were saying, 'we wouldn't do that. At some point
people have to trust each other.' They couldn't understand why
we wouldn't go for that."
Bennett says he asked an official whether a foundation hole
would turn into a regulated wetland if it filled up with water.
"He sort of looked at me with a funny expression and said,
'Well, technically, yes, that could fall under our
But with support from Mike Molnar, Bennett's state
representative, the wetland bank project has gotten approval
and is underway. "We've removed the trees, and we're taking
sand out now," says Bennett. The experience has given him an
ironic new awareness of his legal environment. "Twenty years
ago I filled in some drainage ditches in my back lot, and now I
have 20 acres of marshland behind my house," he says. "It's
full of herons, ducks, foxes, and marsh flowers. If I filled
that in now, the state officials would prosecute me. But when I
want to build another one just like it, the same people try to
tell me it's impossible."
Horsehair in Old
Plaster May be Arsenic-Laden, Investigator Warns
A Delaware engineer investigating old tannery sites is
warning remodelers of a possible risk of arsenic exposure from
old plaster that contains animal hair.
Tasked with evaluating former tannery sites in Delaware, Kevin
Hansen of the environmental firm Tetra Tech looked into the
history of tanning in the area, which dates back to at least
the early 1800s and continued up to the 1950s. Historical
documents and interviews with surviving workers revealed that
the leather-making industry routinely used arsenic to strip
hair off animal hides. On the side, says Hansen, the tanneries
sold horsehair to the plaster industry.
Horsehair used in old
plaster may have been soaked with arsenic,
making plaster demolition particularly harmful to
"The hides were soaked in a slurry of lime and arsenic," he
explains, "which was enough to soften the hair and cause it to
begin to fall out. The workers would scrape the remaining hair
off, so they were soaking themselves in the arsenic." Tannery
workers often developed a malady called "blackfoot disease"
from the arsenic exposure.
"The waste product was a cake containing horsehair, lime, and
arsenic," says Hansen. "The arsenic amounted to a few percent
by weight of the total mass of lime." Plasterers mixed the
whole mess into their product, he says, but the proportions
were held as a trade secret.
It's clear that the tannery's lime cakes were toxic, says
Hansen: "Their other big customer was the folks selling rat
poison." But he can't say for sure whether today's remodelers
risk any harmful exposure: He's not a health expert, and he
hasn't tested any old plaster. "That would be the next step,"
"This is the first indication I've seen in the literature that
this is a potential risk," says Hansen. "It obviously raises a
whole lot of questions that I can't answer. I can't say that
the presence of hair means that there is arsenic, because I
can't support that. But one has to wonder, where did the hair
come from? And in this case the obvious answer is the
tanneries. My hope is that people will be spurred to caution,
and that people will investigate."
Any good industrial lab can measure arsenic levels in plaster
for about $50, says Hansen. And given the known risks of
silicates and allergens, he points out, dust protection is
common sense anyway for workers doing demolition. "My intention
is just to get the word out," he says. "Ninety percent of the
benefit is simply warning people."
Workers Comp Reform
California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded April 16
where previous governors have failed, gaining near-unanimous
legislative approval for a sweeping reform of the state's
workers compensation system. Signing the bill on April 19,
Schwarzenegger said, "Our message to the rest of the country
and the world is that California is open for business."
The new governor spurred legislators to action with a promise
to take his reform proposal to the voters if lawmakers failed
to act by a March deadline. Reform backers won the final vote
walking away, with a tally in the state House of 77 to 3, and
in the Senate of 33 to 3.
California's workers comp system has long been one of the
nation's most costly, covering more workers for more different
conditions than most other states. The reform package aims to
cut payouts back sharply by applying strict new conditions to
benefits. It sets limits on medical benefits for injured
workers, and it ends disability payments after two years
instead of the current five. Workers must choose doctors from a
pool set up by employers and insurance companies, and only
treatments that conform to American Medical Association
guidelines will be covered. Diffuse, non-specific ailments such
as back pain won't be covered at all.
Results uncertain. The new
law took effect immediately, and results were evident by June
as the state's largest comp carrier, State Compensation
Insurance Fund, applied for an average 7% rate decrease. But
that was still much less than the 20% reduction that California
Insurance Commissioner John Garibaldi called for earlier in the
year, or the 30% decline Schwarzenegger has predicted as a
result of the new law.
An unfazed Schwarzenegger told reporters that he expected
further declines as the new system kicks in. But he's counting
on the market to make insurers pass on any cost savings to
ratepayers; the reform law did not include any controls on
premiums. Observers say that if rates don't drop quickly,
however, political pressure will increase to regulate rates
New Lightning-Resistant Flexible
Gas Line Shines During Demonstration
OmegaFlex, Inc., the Exton, Pa.-based company that makes
TracPipe flexible stainless steel gas piping
), has introduced a new
product called CounterStrike that is engineered to withstand
lightning strikes better than standard flex-pipe products. The
company introduced the new piping material at a demonstration
in Frisco, Tex., where engineers from Pittsfield,
Mass.based Lightning Technologies ran tests to simulate
the effects of a moderately powerful lightning strike.
Gary Woodall, a fire investigator with Donan Engineering
(Jasper, Ind.), who has investigated several cases of
lightning-related fires involving flex-pipe
(In The News,
5/04), attended the demonstration by invitation.
"In the test they applied a charge of 13,000 to 15,000 volts,"
Woodall told JLC. "It smoked the inside of the jacket
— you could see it — but it didn't blow a hole in
it. It was not a pinpoint discharge." The covering on the new
CounterStrike product is relatively low-resistance, Woodall
explained: "It actually spreads the discharge out."
OmegaFlex doesn't expect the new material to handle lightning
much beyond average intensity. "Lightning comes in many forms
and strengths," explains Lightning Technologies executive and
engineer Michael Dargi, "and no material is going to hold up to
every lightning strike. But this product should reduce the
incidence of fires."
"Not every part of the country experiences a high risk of
lightning strikes," points out OmegaFlex President Kevin Hoben.
OmegaFlex is marketing CounterStrike along with its GasBreaker
valve, which is designed to close automatically when the flow
of gas suddenly surges above the set point, indicating a line
break. The company suggests that installers use its "good,
better, best" graduated response, applying costlier and more
elaborate protective systems where they are justified by
locally high risk.
Code-compliant protection for a gas pipe installation relies on
equipment grounding as a means to ground the gas supply system.
In the OmegaFlex "good" case, an electrician would install a
bonding jumper between the gas supply piping and the electrical
system for the home, giving them a common grounding pathway.
The "better" case uses CounterStrike piping for all gas supply
lines, and the "best" method runs the main gas line into the
house through the earth beneath the foundation slab to a
manifold. The GasBreaker safety valve is offered as an option
in the basic system (local code may also require it), and as a
recommended component of the upgraded alternatives.
OffcutsCity officials in Dallas have informed 32 building
inspectors that they will be fired for filing false
to cover up the fact that they weren't
working, the Dallas Morning News
reported in June.
Seventy building department employees in all, about half the
total workforce, will be disciplined as a result of a city
investigation into sham timesheets. The misbehavior came to
light when administrators counted fewer inspection reports on
file than the total number of inspections city employees had
The Portland Cement Association (PCA) has received
American National Standards Institute (ANSI)
accreditation as a standard-writing organization, and
invites interested parties to help create a new ANSI standard
on prescriptive design and construction requirements for
concrete walls in residential construction. To conform with
ANSI requirements, says PCA, "the standard-development
committee will comprise a balance of concrete producers, users,
and general interest groups ensuring that no one group
dominates the process."
Beazer Homes has set aside $24 million to pay
anticipated claims related to mold in hundreds of Indiana
homes, reports the Atlanta Business
Chronicle. Beazer inherited hundreds of mold problems when
it purchased Crossing Communities in 2002. The homes, mostly in
the Indianapolis area, were originally built by Trinity, LLC,
which Crossman had bought in 2000. State prosecutors have
stepped in to investigate many of the Indiana cases, which
reportedly relate mostly to moisture in poorly detailed
brick-veneer exterior stud walls.
The Carmel, Ind., city council has withdrawn a proposed
ban on vinyl and aluminum siding after critics labeled
the idea "snobbery and exclusion," according to the
Indianapolis Star. Instead, the council recommended
the creation of an architectural review board to supply
guidelines for the city Plan Commission.
A state analysis shows that Massachusetts towns
typically profit from new home starts, according to a
Boston Globe report. The study of 215 communities
showed that new tax revenue exceeded new school costs in 170
municipalities, and fell short in 45. On average, towns netted
between $1500 and $2000 a year from each newly-built home. But
less affluent towns with few high-end homes and many
multi-family projects are struggling to manage cost increases
caused by growing student populations.
Impact fees to fund school construction in Lee County,
Fla., have been declared legal by a state judge,
ending a three-year battle and opening the way for the county
to start spending $40 million on new schools. Florida Circuit
Judge James Seals ruled that the methods used by the county to
show a reasonable connection between new home construction and
the county's need for new schools, and to set fee levels, were
not unreasonable. But in an advisory note, the judge criticized
the county administration for not taking enough care in its
calculations to clearly justify its policy and deter the costly
Four to five thousand Dallas construction trade workers
may get help becoming homeowners themselves under a
pilot program introduced by former HUD Secretary Henry
Cisneros, according to a report in the Dallas Business
Journal. Cisneros now heads up CityVista Homes, the
company he started several years ago as a joint venture with KB
Home to build affordable housing in working-class urban areas.
Thousands of Dallas workers earn a living building homes but do
not own homes themselves, said CityVista vice president
Fernando de Leon. Cisneros and de Leon met with Dallas
community leaders in May to line up support for the idea.Back to