Congressman tours local chain factory

Published on Thu, Aug 23, 2001 by Meg Olson

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Congressman tours local chain factory

By Meg Olson

Whether it’s tankers coming into San Francisco Bay or a sailboat gliding up the intracoastal waterway, a bit of Blaine will be helping to guide them safely on their way. For a second time in a row, Lister Chain and Forge in Blaine has been awarded the contract to make the chain that anchors Coast Guard navigational buoys from coast to coast.

“That’s impressive,” said U.S. Congressman Rick Larsen, who stopped by the Blaine business Monday after hearing of the contract through the Coast Guard. In a nondescript building at the junction of Portal Way and Loomis Trail Road, Lister already manufactures over 100,000 feet of buoy and anchor chain a year and assembles anchor packages weighing thousands of pounds for the United States Navy. “People drive by this place for years and don’t know it exists,” said company administrator Wayne Pither, filling in for vacationing plant manager Orlando McCarty. The factory has been there since 1989, when Lister bought a defunct plant in Europe and moved the equipment over. It was a family company until four years ago, when it became a division of Columbus McKinnon Corporation which also has plants in Canada.

Lister’s Blaine plant specializes in large chain sizes with links up to three inches thick. The chain is handmade, a team of workers assembling each 90-foot length a link at a time. Carbon steel rods are superheated with a high intensity pulse of electricity, then bent onto the chain’s free end to make a link. Then the link is welded closed, the weld is trimmed and the link air-cools as the chain is spun back around to the beginning. Each link of the chain is separately inspected and polished and finally pressure tested. “Nothing leaves here without being pulled,” said quality control manager Sean Russell. The test facility can apply up to 3 million pounds of pressure to a length of chain, satisfying Russell that it can stand up to anything it’s likely to encounter in service. “When they do come apart it makes quite a bang,” he said, adding that the seismology department at Western Washington University registered the shock when a three inch link snapped during testing.

“How are your energy costs? How is that impacting you?” Larsen asked. “They’ve gone up a lot,” Pither replied. “It’s huge. We’re trying to run things a little differently to save money.” The machines that heat rods to be bent to form chain link use thousands of dollars in electricity each month.

The new five year contract will generate an additional $7-8 million for the company. “That’ll probably keep seven or eight guys busy for the next five years,” Pither said. “We have the capacity to make the chain here, but there will be a small expansion.” While some of the chain is now being made in plants north of the border, Pither said he expects all of it will be made in Blaine after January 2002. Columbus McKinnon announced last week that the company’s Richmand plant will close at the end of this year and their workload will come to Blaine.

“If we hadn’t gotten the Coast Guard contract there could have been trouble,” Pither answered when Larsen asked how much it helped preserve and create local employment. “Anchor chain business isn’t what it used to be.” Lister sales supervisor Gleb Novoshanoff said competition was stiff from cheaper chain manufactured in Asia. “Our chain is very expansive compared to Chinese chain, but we make very good product,” he said. The company makes anchor chain for the Mexican navy, he said, because they demand the higher quality standard. Since 1990 U.S congress has also required the armed services to use only domestically produced chain.

“That’s one we did,” said Novoshanoff, pointing to pictures of destroyers in the plant office. “We’re on more than 50 ships now and hope to be on six more soon.” Larsen’s recent appointment to the House armed forces committee could mean some extra legislative muscle for the small local foundry if more funds are directed towards the nation’s fleet. “It’s been a little tight lately,” Novoshanoff said.

Following his visit to Lister, Larsen stopped for pie at JJ Café in the Peace Arch Factory Outlet mall and was off to Lynden, where he and his staff will go door to door to meet with constituents. “It’s one thing to talk on the phone, send letters and emails, and another altogether to be there, see things first hand, talk to people face to face” Larsen said. In a future visit, Larsen said he hopes to bang on a few Blaine and Birch Bay doors and visit more local businesses.
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