Cement terminal draws scrutiny

Cement terminal draws scrutiny
Published: 22 May 2006

A no-bid contract to build the first cement terminal at the Port of Miami-Dade has raised objections from at least one competitor and is being scrutinized by the county’s inspector general (reports the Miami Herald).

Local firm Sermar USA wants to import and store cement in a dome on the south side of the port, a proposal given tentative approval by a County Commission committee earlier this year.

Cement facilities are common at Florida ports, including Port Everglades. But the Port of Miami-Dade has always shunned bulk cargo, focusing instead on more lucrative cruise passengers and cargo containers. That changed earlier this year, when outgoing port director Charles Towsley tentatively approved a 25-year lease with Sermar.

Sermar has less experience in importing cement than industry leaders such as Rinker Materials, though one Sermar partner has worked in the cement hauling and mixing business for 25 years and the other partner has received tens of millions of dollars in county paving contracts. Still, some rivals weren’t pleased.

’’We have been repeatedly told by port staff that that’s not where they are going [bulk operations],’’ said George Williamson, director of business development for Rinker, which operates at Port Everglades. “If land is available, we would have liked to have known about it. We would like a shot.’’

With a global shortage of cement sending demand, and prices, skyrocketing, Sermar believes it can satisfy the South Florida construction industry’s need for cement. Instead of storing the cement in tall silos, as many cement terminals do, Sermar said it will use new technology to store 50,000 tons of cement in a less-obtrusive dome. Underground pipes will transport the cement from ships into the dome. The firm plans to import cement from Latin American countries.

’’We are the little guys,’’ Sermar President Sergio Martinez said about his importing experience. County Inspector General Chris Mazella has asked the Sermar deal to be put on hold pending a review. ’’We want to know who they are and what’s their history,’’ Mazella said.

Sermar was founded two years ago by Martinez, who has worked in the cement business for 25 years. His business, Concrete Hauling, has a fleet of trucks that transport cement from Florida ports to cement plants throughout South Florida. His partner in Sermar is Raul Gonzalez, owner of H&R Paving, which has received roughly US$61m in county paving contracts since 2003.

Sermar’s lobbyist is Jacqueline del Cristo, who was appointed to the county’s International Trade Consortium by Commissioner Jose ’’Pepe’’ Diaz. During a commission committee meeting in March, in which the project was approved, Diaz was one of the plan’s biggest boosters. ’’I want to congratulate you,’’ Diaz told Towsley. “We told you to come up with solutions [to a budget shortfall]. We have something that will make us a lot of money at the port.’’

To cover a deficit that could reach US$7 million because of added security costs, the Port of Miami-Dade has been trying to impose a fee on cruise passengers, but the cruise industry is fighting that move.

Towsley said it’s common practice for the port to award leases without bids. ’’We have the authority to do it, and most ports do it this way,’’ Towsley said. ’’We will negotiate until we find a good price.’’ He told commissioners he had reservations about the project - mostly because of environmental concerns - but Sermar eased those fears.

The lease calls for Sermar to pay for demolishing an old port building and relocate an access road. In addition, Sermar will pay the port roughly $1 per metric ton of cement moved each year. Sermar has estimated it will move at least 300,000t annually. The lease is contingent on the firm obtaining all required permits. In late 2004, a Brazilian company proposed a floating barge terminal at the Port of Miami-Dade, but it was rejected on environmental grounds.