Dredgers assigned to Iraq

Baltimore company gets contract for work on foreign waterways

September 21, 2006|By Meredith Cohn | Meredith Cohn,Sun reporter

Among the American companies working to rebuild the war-torn and neglected Iraqi landscape is a Maryland manufacturer that recently won contracts for dredging equipment worth millions of dollars.

Ellicott Dredges, a division of Baltimore Dredges LLC, has supplied equipment for projects from Baltimore's harbor to the Panama Canal and those in more than 70 other countries. It recently shipped its first piece of equipment to Iraq, one of a dozen units in all that will go to the country to help maintain 12,000 miles of waterways. The equipment will remove silt upstream from hydroelectric dams, control flooding on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and maintain irrigation canals and the channels of the Um Qasr port in southern Iraq.

Those contracts with the Ministry of Water Resources, and another recently signed with the government of Nigeria, total $10 million, a company executive said yesterday. The contracts are not the largest for the company - and a fraction of overall construction money in Iraq - but they represent hard-won new markets for a local firm that now does half its business overseas.

"Iraq is a good opportunity," said Peter Bowe, the company's president, who traveled to the country to secure the deal.

"I see more business there going forward. The Saddam Hussein regime stole money and invested nothing, so there is a lot of deferred infrastructure need. The work is obviously challenged by security," Bowe said.

It will take a year and a half to supply the equipment: 12 units in Iraq and four in Nigeria. The company expects to add jobs during that time in Baltimore, where it has 65 workers, and Wisconsin, where it employs 32.

To win the contracts, the company sought help from the Commerce Department's U.S. Export Assistance Center. It aids hundreds of Maryland companies a year in selling products overseas by conducting market research, providing space at trade shows, identifying overseas partners and consulting and advocating.

Bill Burwell, director of the center in Baltimore, said other local companies have had success in Iraq despite a lack of history there, cultural differences and security issues.

"Iraq and Nigeria are hard markets, no doubt about it," Burwell said.

More typical destinations for Maryland products are Canada, Egypt, Japan, Mexico and the United Kingdom, according to Commerce Department data. Leading local exporters from 2001 to 2005 were machinery manufacturers, computer and electronics producers, chemical makers and transportation equipment makers. Exports in general from Maryland increased about 24 percent in 2005 from a year earlier to $7.1 billion.

The privately owned Baltimore Dredges was formed in 2002 from the remains of Ellicott Machine Corp. It merged with a Kansas company and later received an infusion of money from the Baltimore Fund, financed primarily by the Open Society Institute-Baltimore and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Fund officials said at the time that they saw potential to add manufacturing jobs in the city. Ellicott, which traces its roots back to 1885, had liquidated its assets and laid off its workers after the government of Thailand defaulted on a contract.

Bowe said the dredge machines are like floating bulldozers powered by diesel engines that dig up underwater material and pump it out.

The machines weigh a couple of hundred tons and disassembled require six tractor-trailers to be moved. They will travel by ship, some from the port of Baltimore, to Iraq and Nigeria.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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