DULUTH – Lloyd Hautajarvi knew about the poisons simmering in the Saint-Louis River in 1968.
Filled with a century of human waste and toxic chemicals, including those from nearby US Steel Duluth Works, children who grew up in Morgan Park back then were largely forbidden to swim there. But one sweltering day, he and a friend rolled their canoe for a minute in the river, which was shallow with mud. The next day both had water blisters.
“It would save you too many swimming adventures,” he recently said. “We knew what was in that river.”
Federal, state, local and tribal efforts to clean up the St. Louis River, which separates Minnesota and Wisconsin, and remove it from the national list of polluted waterways have been ongoing for more than three decades. Now, a major injection coming largely from the federal infrastructure bill announced Tuesday in Duluth is expected to accelerate those efforts.
At the U.S. Steel Superfund site in Morgan Park, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials announced $113 million for three highly contaminated sites in the St. Louis River, paying for much of the work needed to remove its federal area of concern (AOC) designation.
“It’s an exciting day for anyone who loves the St. Louis River,” said Debra Shore, EPA Midwest Bureau Chief. “Thanks to bipartisan infrastructure legislation and support from our private and public partners, we are on track to complete cleanup and restoration in the St. Louis River Area of Concern by the end of this decade. … and maybe as early as 2027.”
About $100 million will remain to remove the river from the list of polluted sites it joined in 1987 under the Canada-US Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. With damage ranging from Cloquet to Duluth-Superior Harbor, the river and its estuary were among the largest of the 43 sites listed.
So far, more than $237 million has been invested in the cleanup. The new funding adds another $81 million to complete the U.S. Steel-Spirit Lake project, $25 million for the restoration of nearby Munger Landing and nearly $7 million for the Scanlon Reservoir.
“This money can really transform how people connect to the land,” said Duluth Mayor Emily Larson.
‘Just the Beginning’
The St. Louis River spans the ancestral lands of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Long a haven for migratory birds and a spawning ground for lake sturgeon and other fish, it was designated a national water trail in 2020, with 11 loop trails for watercraft. The designation represents a major victory in the decades-long cleanup effort and is part of Duluth’s vision for the western waterfront as it improves parks and habitat and builds new trails and water access. .
“The river is a huge part of our heritage,” Larson said. “Generations of families have been impacted by development and industry along the river and we want future generations of families to be impacted by its natural setting, ecosystem and biodiversity.”
Newcomers to the city, often drawn to the craft beer made possible by a cleaner estuary, are largely unfamiliar with the river’s history, said Kris Eilers, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance, a local non-profit organization long involved in cleaning up the river.
It’s important to connect them, creating more stewards for the waterway as it continues to heal, she said.
And for those managing his health, said Melissa Sjolund of the Department of Natural Resources, radiation will only be “the beginning”.
“We get funding every year for this and we’re asked when we’re done,” she said. “The answer is we won’t. … Protecting those areas is going to be really important.”
How did we come here?
When the Duluth Harbor Canal opened in 1871, it gave way to rapid expansion, with ships coming up the St. Louis River from Lake Superior. Heavy industry docks filled with wetlands. And everyone dumped pretty much everything in the river for 100 years, before sewage treatment and other regulations existed.
“They thought the creek would take care of it” and dilute the waste, said Barbara Huberty, who coordinates the St. Louis River AOC work for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). “People haven’t understood the long-term effects.”
It didn’t take long for sewage and industrial waste to suck oxygen from the river, with poor water quality being recorded in the early 1900s. Eventually the fish were unable to penetrate the “biological barrier” to travel upstream to spawn, said Joel Hoffman, an EPA research biologist based in Duluth.
“For about 50 years this river died year after year,” he said.
When Duluth’s first major wastewater treatment plant opened in 1978 — Western Lake Superior Sanitary District — it was “a huge turning point,” Hoffman said. “Oxygen, and therefore life, roared back to the river.”
Dennis Doherty, who grew up and continues to reside in the city’s Riverside neighborhood, remembers when it happened. “The river immediately looked different,” he said.
But toxic pollutants – including mercury and others that can cause cancer and respiratory problems – remained buried in the river, threatening humans and wildlife.
Removal from the federal list requires the removal of “degradations”, of which the St. Louis River originally had nine. There are six left, including one whose retirement is planned this spring. A dozen projects are in progress or awaiting funding. Most involve dredging or restoration, and they range from slips in the harbor to Scanlon Reservoir where the power was generated, more than 20 miles south of Duluth.
Launched in 2020, the largest and most complex contamination removal project involves Spirit Lake, the section of the river next to the US Steel site, a coking plant and plant that closed in 1981. The costs Remediation totals stand at $165 million, of which US Steel pays 51%.
In total, more than 1.3 million cubic meters of toxic river bottom are dredged, screened and stored in special containers on site, or safely covered. Nearly 120 acres in the river will be covered with clean sand and a new 42-acre shallow sheltered bay for spawning grounds will be constructed.
Another complex project was completed last fall at Grassy Point, once the site of two sawmills built over water that left trash piled 16 feet deep on 75 acres, choking life.
The DNR project used healthy but excess dirt from nearby Kingsbury Bay to line the bottom of Grassy Point. And the clean wood removed was reused to build an island that shields the bay behind it, shielding it from wind and waves, said Guy Partch of Barr Engineering, who was commissioned to carry out the work.
It is now the “highly prized” type of sheltered bay in the estuary, Partch said.
Tuesday’s stage, and others like the water trail designation, will draw more people to a destination-worthy river, the MPCA’s Huberty said.
The trail is an example of what it is becoming, showing a “wilderness” side that many who have lived here for decades don’t know exists, she said.
“You walk in there and you feel like you’re in boundary waters, and you’re only (a few) miles from home,” Huberty said. “What people have been dreaming of for decades is finally happening.”
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