Building a strong foundation

Monday, June 11, 2007
A blast of 46,000 tons of rock was made Thursday in the base of the Buzzi Unicem USA quarry. Last year, a company record was set with the production of 1.5 million tons of cement product. (Kit Doyle)

When employees of the Cape Girardeau cement plant look at massive concrete fixtures in the area, they're reminded that they helped make the product that holds the structure together.

The cement from Buzzi Unicem USA on South Sprigg Street was used on the Bill Emerson Memorial Bridge. Much like the cement plant, it was built to stand the test of time.

The 26-year-old 235 foot kiln at Buzzi Unicem USA, shown Thursday, can reach 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit.

"Concrete is going to be around for a long time," said plant manager Steve Leus, who's worked in cement production for 31 years. "It's a fantastic building product. To make concrete, you got to have cement."

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the cement industry in Cape Girardeau.

In 1906, C.J. Crawford, a geologist, discovered abundant limestone reserves with proximity to the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau. Calcium, the main ingredient for cement, is found in limestone. The product could be transported cheaper by barge than by rail or truck, according to Leus.

Crawford moved to the area in 1907 to begin promotion work for a cement industry in Southeast Missouri. Construction for a cement manufacturing facility began soon after.

Within three years, the Cape Girardeau Portland Cement Co., operated by the Harrison Interests, started production.

Over the years, the plant was operated under several different owners, but remained in the same location.

"I'd say our work force is what led to the longevity of the plant," said Jamie Burger, production supervisor. "When another company purchased the plant, the new company kept the work force."

In 1923, the Marquette Company acquired the Cape Girardeau facility. The company constructed a wet process plant on the site in 1957 as the market grew. Wet plants mix raw materials in a slurry.

Buzzi Unicem USA production manager Mark Kluesner has worked a variety of positions during his almost 30 years at the cement factory.

Technological advances to produce cement more efficiently continued to flourish, and in 20 years, design for a dry process manufacturing plant was initiated. It's the present day facility.

Today the cement plant has 200 to 400 acres of reserve limestone. In some sections of the plant's 2,000 acres, there are 350-foot excavations. Explosives are used two to three times a week to break up the limestone.

"I was told there was enough rock for 35 years when I got there," said Delbert Phillips, control room attendant.

He started working at the plant under Marquette in 1979. Then, in 1982, Lone Star Industries Inc. bought out the Marquette Company, including the Cape Girardeau facility.

Dyckerhoff AG, a world leader in cement and concrete manufacturing based in Germany, acquired Lone Star in 1999, but retained the name.

Most recently, Buzzi Unicem, one of Italy's largest cement and concrete groups, gained control of about three-quarters of Dyckerhoff. Buzzi Unicem reorganized its U.S. operations in 2004, merging its RC Cement with Dyckerhoff's Lone Star Industries to form Buzzi Unicem USA.

Last year the plant produced 1.5 million tons of cement, its most ever.

A 235-foot rotary kiln typically makes about 4,200 tons of clinker a day, according to Mark Kluesner, plant manager going on 30 years. It's the heart of the plant, Kluesner said.

The kiln heats up to 1,600 degrees in 20 seconds and reaches about 2,700 degrees. Working next to the slow moving device, the temperature can get to around 140 degrees, Kluesner said. The object is to keep it going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But like all equipment, it's subject to breakdown, he said. In this case it takes 24 to 36 hours to start back up.

"When we have a good year of production and safety, it can be rewarding," said Kluesner. "You have to be willing to work in adverse conditions."

The 200 employees, the majority long-term, work in three shifts to keep the plant going.

"Most of the people that work there have lived here their whole life," said Burger, who's going on his 24th year. "It's supplied lots of families with a good living above wage in our area."

335-6611, extension 137

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