Alaska acquisitions, upgrades exceed $700 million for shipper Matson

A Hawaii-based transportation company has spent more than $700 million to enter the Alaska market over two years by buying up freight companies and upgrading facilities — just as the state's economy was souring and business was drooping.

But officials with Matson on Tuesday said they are taking a long view and are ready to jump at new opportunities in Alaska, including a rebound in oil patch activity if prices rise or, more remotely, if Alaska's giant gas-export project enters construction.

Matson, a 135-year-old company headquartered in Honolulu, has long served Hawaii and other Pacific Ocean locales. It snapped up Horizon Lines' Alaska operations in 2015 and acquired cargo hauler Span Alaska in 2016. The purchases totaled $669 million.

Matson also has invested more than $50 million in new gear for its Alaska fleet and operations, in part by replacing an outdated container crane in Kodiak with a modern, upsized version in 2015.

The company slightly boosted its workforce at its Alaska operations following the acquisitions. It now employs more than 300 in the state, officials said.

With critical North Slope oil field activity in a slump, transportation companies, including Matson, have seen business tighten, said Eddie Walton, Matson's manager of Alaska Railbelt logistics.

But opportunities are on the horizon, including the expansion at Eielson Air Force Base for new F-35 fighter jets, a construction project expected to pump hundreds of millions of dollars into the state in the next two years.


On Tuesday, the company unveiled the latest retrofit on container ships making the Tacoma-to-Alaska run: a unique system that sprays exhaust with water and lye — an ingredient for detergent.

The mixture captures pollutants from the exhaust as the ships sail, falling through pipework into a 5,000-gallon tank below the engine room for safe disposal on shore.

On Tuesday, Walton gave journalists at the Port of Anchorage a tour of the 700-foot Matson Tacoma during a lunch break for operators of the company's trio of shoreside cranes. Throughout the day, before the ship headed off to Kodiak for more deliveries, those operators plucked hundreds of giant container boxes off the ship, loading lumber, groceries and shiny new cars onto trucks for delivery across the state.

Matson says its new exhaust system reduces sulfur dioxide and particulate matter released into the air, to levels "well below" those set by state and federal regulatory agencies. It also saves the company money, allowing it to use cheaper, standard diesel fuel, instead of the ultra-low sulfur diesel fuel required by the Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.

That exemption is possible because the system is more effective at reducing sulfur emissions than using the low-sulfur fuel, said officials with Matson, which worked with the U.S. Coast Guard and the EPA before implementing the system.

An EPA official reached on Tuesday could not immediately comment on the system.

Correction: This article has been updated to note that Matson is headquartered in Honolulu, not Oakland as the article previously said. 

Alex DeMarban

Alex DeMarban is a longtime Alaska journalist who covers business, the oil and gas industries and general assignments. Reach him at 907-257-4317 or