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Maintaining Proctor water tower is a tall order

Dominick Hartung doesn't much like his job, but he's a godsend to cities with aging water towers. On Thursday afternoon, Hartung, a project supervisor with Champion Coatings in Savage, Minn., began applying a second coat of strong epoxy paint to ...

Dominick Hartung doesn't much like his job, but he's a godsend to cities with aging water towers.

On Thursday afternoon, Hartung, a project supervisor with Champion Coatings in Savage, Minn., began applying a second coat of strong epoxy paint to the underbelly of the Proctor water tower sphere. Hartung clung to a railing with one hand, balanced spreadeagled on a small scaffold suspended more than 100 feet in the air. His shirtsleeves flapped in the wind as he stretched a paint roller to its furthest reach.

"Kids, this is why you stay in school," deadpanned Hartung's co-worker, Paul Schmidt of Arkansaw, Wis., as he watched from the ground.

Maintenance work on the Proctor water tower -- which is owned and maintained by the city of Duluth, though it provides water and pressure to many residents of Proctor and the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area -- is nearing completion. Hartung said he expected that the city could begin filling the 400,000-gallon tower by the middle of next week.

The 143-foot tower was built in 1987, and this is the first time it's been freshened up, said David Prusak, Duluth's chief utilities engineer. The tower has been completely sandblasted clean and will be freshly painted inside and out. The project has lasted several months and cost about $328,000.

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It's all part of a 20-year maintenance cycle that the city hopes will make their six water towers stand the test of time and the elements.

Putting off a thorough paint job isn't like letting a few more cracks develop in an old sidewalk, because water towers aren't easily patched.

"If you let the metal rust, then it pits and you can't get it healthy again," Prusak said,

Duluth's water and sewer infrastructure system has been nearing a crisis for years. About half of Duluth's water system is more than 85 years old and deteriorating rapidly, according to a 2002 city task force report. The report recommended raising water rates by nearly $1 million a year for three years, and the city did so beginning in 2003.

Maintaining water towers is the type of project that has a big payoff, Prusak said. If the city can spend $300,000 on a good paint job every 20 years, it is more likely to avoid having to replace a multimillion-dollar water tower.

The project has come with some inconvenience to Proctor residents: It's noisy and dusty, and water pressure and clarity to some parts of town have been inconsistent. Proctor Public Utilities Commission secretary Carol Lind said the city has had just two phone calls about water quality, and she has had city crews flush out water hydrants to try to clear up the water.

Proctor resident Dave Swindeman has been frustrated with the discolored water flowing out of his tap. On Wednesday, Swindeman said he ran a bathtub full of rusty-colored water that refused to clear.

"I drink an awful lot of water," Swindeman said. He has resorted to bottled water several times when his tap water wouldn't clear.

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It's difficult to find people willing to clean and paint water towers, Hartung said. He has been working with Champion Coatings, which focuses on municipal water towers, for about 13 years. The hard, dirty work that requires constant travel is wearing on him.

The Proctor water tower will get three coats of paint; the first, thickest coat is sprayed on, and the second and third are applied with a roller. That means Hartung and his crew spend weeks waiting for just the right weather conditions before they crawl around inside the tower or dangle along the outside.

If it's too windy, they can't paint or sandblast. If it's too humid, the raw steel will start rusting immediately. And if it's raining, forget it. The Proctor water tower work has been running a little behind schedule because of recent wet weather; Hartung was supposed to start work on another water tower Monday, but he knows he won't make it.

When asked what he likes about his work, Hartung had to think for a moment. "I do something not a lot of people can do," he finally said.

Moments later, he smeared petroleum jelly across his face and beard -- if the epoxy gets on your skin, it'll stay there for days, Hartung said -- before he strapped a harness around his waist and legs. He climbed aboard the rigging, Christian rock music playing in his headset, and held on as the rigging's winch hauled him up, up and up toward the white tower thrust against the sky.

JANNA GOERDT covers the communities surrounding Duluth. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 279-5527 or by e-mail at jgoerdt@duluthnews.com .

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