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Bellingham Turning Steel Remnant Of Pulp Mill Into Art On Waterfront

In Bellingham, a giant work of art will link the city’s industrial past with the future of its waterfront, a place where pulp and paper mills once operated 24 hours a day. The artwork is referred to simply as "The Acid Ball."The city and port of Bellingham are turning the former waterfront mill site, just steps from downtown Bellingham, into a multi-use development that will eventually include parks, light-industrial businesses and apartments and condos. 

The last pulp and paper mill on the site was shut down by Georgia Pacific in 2007. The buildings were razed and environmental clean up conducted. 

But, not everything got hauled away.

On a tour of the site, Mike Hogan, Port of Bellingham spokesman, shows me the 30-foot-in-diameter Acid Ball and explains its history.  He says it was used in the mill to relieve pressure that built up in the digester tanks that cooked wood chips down to pulp with sulfuric acid.

It definitely looks like something out of the 1930s, when it was constructed for the mill. 

Darby Cowles, with Bellingham’s planning and development department says it seems to have captured the community’s imagination. She says there’s something really beautiful about even the oversized rivets on it. 

“And it’s exposure over time has created this rusty multicolored patina," Cowles said.

The city decided to showcase it in the waterfront park that will begin construction next summer. A call was put out artists for ideas, and according to Cowles, proposals poured in from all over the world.

There was an idea to paint it like a beach ball, another proposal to cut 150 stars in it.

The winning idea, which still has be be approved by the Bellingham Arts Commission, is from Seattle based Mutuus studios.

Mutuus proposes covering the ball in a glass bead like reflective coating, similar to what's used on airport runways and on crosswalks.

Cowles says what’s so attractive about the idea is it changes the ball the least.

“The underlying look of the ball shines through, but it’s got an irridescent quality,” Cowles said.

The Bellingham’s Arts Commission meets on Tuesday, December 6, to vote on the recommendation.

The Acid Ball won’t be the only blast from the past on the redeveloped waterfront. The city also plans to somehow incorporate six rocket-shaped wood chip digester tanks into the design of the public space.

Paula is a former host, reporter and producer who retired from KNKX in 2021. She joined the station in 1989 as All Things Considered host and covered the Law and Justice beat for 15 years. Paula grew up in Idaho and, prior to KNKX, worked in public radio and television in Boise, San Francisco and upstate New York.