Digester Tank Project Causes Lead Contamination


Port of Bellingham officials in Washington have confirmed that, earlier this week, lead paint from a recent refurbishing project on the port’s “rocket ship” digester tanks has contaminated lawns at the nearby Container Village.

According to Port of Bellingham spokesman Mike Hogan, paint flakes from the six cylindrical digester tanks fell outside the screens that were set up to prevent them from escaping the work area, resulting in the contamination.

Project Background

In 2015, demolition crews revealed the tanks that had long stood on the city’s former industrial waterfront behind brick walls.

“They’re almost like secret sculpture pieces that were hidden down there, invisible to the community,” John Reid, the architect working with Irish-developer Harcourt Developments on the first steps to renew the site at the time, told The Bellingham Herald.

Earlier that year, the Port of Bellingham had announced it would hold onto the three oldest tanks for potential use during the redevelopment, but Reid and Harcourt didn’t think that would be enough. “Harcourt Developments and myself are keen to retain those,” Reid said.

After speaking with Port Executive Director Rob Fix, the six tanks were left standing rather than being scrapped for their steel.

It was suggested that the bubbling and cracking silver lead paint on the outside of the tanks be removed, the outsides primed and repainted, and the brick liners inside removed to reduce the weight of each tank.

The work also reportedly wanted the foundation to be protected from damage during demolition, and the openings on the top and bottom of each tank to be sealed.

Reid said that he thought the tanks could be used throughout parks and avenues on the waterfront to pay homage to the site’s history.

“These kind of sculptural rockets have great potential to celebrate this former industrial past,” he said. “I think there’s opportunity for color, for water, for illumination.”

In line with Reid's vision for illumination, it was announced in 2021 that the tanks would be receiving lights that glow in a variety of colors depending on events and seasons.

The work also reportedly contained plans for the foundation to be protected from damage during demolition, and the openings on the top and bottom of each tank to be sealed.

Then, at the beginning of April, officials in Bellingham, Washington, unveiled plans to have flaking paint removed from the rocket ships as a part of a makeover project.

According to the Port of Bellingham, workers planned to remove the old and failing paint from the almost 90-year-old vessels, allowing them to rust so that they resemble the neighboring “Acid Ball” liquid and gas tank. 

The project began on April 1 and was scheduled to be completed by the end of the month by Purcell Painting and Coatings.

The Port of Bellingham stated that the new project would include:

  • The removal and disposal of failing paint and coatings on the digester tanks;
  • The use of a high-power pressure washer to strip the paint rather than abrasive blasting to better control dust;
  • Containment of water and paint with screening hung from the digester tanks and thick plastic sheeting to collect water and paint under the digesters; and
  • Real-time air monitoring around the digesters and downwind areas throughout the waterfront.

Work was reportedly coordinated with regulatory agencies including Washington State Labor and Industries, the Northwest Clean Air Agency and the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Additionally, the port planned to install new history signs to explain the purpose of the tanks that were once part of the Georgia-Pacific pulp mill that took up the entire waterfront site two decades ago.

The 65-foot digester tanks were built in 1937 and worked to turn wood into pulp for products like toilet paper and paper towels on the 137-acre factory, which closed in 2001 due to rising energy costs and the Enron corporate scandal.

The report explains that logs were ground into chips and then loaded that into the digester tanks to be cooked in acid, creating the pulp. Previously, the tanks had been stored inside a building until the G-P plant closed.

The digester tanks were reportedly saved from demolition by public support to maintain them, the Acid Ball and several other buildings as examples of waterfront history.

The project came along with the port’s efforts to redevelop the city's waterfront district. A master plan was approved for the 237 acres on Bellingham's central waterfront to create a vibrant, mixed-use neighborhood with new parks, trails and jobs. 

The area is set to be redeveloped in phases over the next 40 to 50 years of investment and development.

Contamination Updates

According to the The Bellingham Herald, the lawns are now being removed and replaced, with plans to be ready for use by June 1.

“The Port hired a regulated materials specialist to oversee the project and the contractor put controls in place to contain the paint, but unfortunately some paint chips have been found on the lawns next to the digester tanks,” Hogan said in an email.

Hogan added that port officials “appreciate everyone’s patience as we safely prepare our waterfront for the summer season.” On the port’s website, officials stated that they believe there is little risk to the public.

“Exposure to lead paint, especially over long periods of time, can be a health hazard. However, there is no reason to believe that a short-term visit to the lawns next to the digester tanks pose a health risk to the public. Anyone concerned about lead exposure should contact their health-care provider,” officials said.


Tagged categories: Coating Application; Coating failure; Coating Materials; Coating Materials; Coatings; Containment; Flaking; Health & Safety; Health and safety; Lead; Lead; Lead paint abatement; Maintenance coating work; Metal coatings; NA; North America; Ongoing projects; Program/Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair; Restoration; Restoration; Rust; Safety; Tanks; Tanks

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