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St. Louis River touted as a better place to be

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St. Louis River touted as a better place to be
Duluth Minnesota 424 W. First St. 55802

The time has come to proclaim the St. Louis River estuary as better-looking, better-smelling and a better place to spend time.

Officially, it’s more aesthetically pleasing than it was 40 years ago, when raw sewage and industrial waste was flowing into the waterway.

That’s what officials on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the lower St. Louis say as they officially start the process to remove the Twin Ports from the list of 43 heavily polluted “Areas of Concern” along the Great Lakes.

The lower river and harbor made the infamous list in 1987 because of nine major problems, including generally nasty aesthetics.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are leading the effort. The application to have the aesthetic impairment removed will be submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency later this summer.

The effort is aimed at marking progress in the long-running cleanup of a century of pollution and development along the river and harbor, said Matt Steiger, who heads the effort for the Wisconsin DNR.  But it’s also a chance to show Congress, state lawmakers and other groups that the money they have spent on clean-up projects has provided some bang for the buck — that results are measureable, Steiger said.

“The river looks better. It doesn’t smell bad. There’s a general public sense that the level of beauty along the river is better now than it was 30 years go,” Steger said. “We can document that improvement. And we can explain why it’s better, what projects have occurred, to get us here.”

Those projects include improved municipal wastewater treatment facilities and significant reductions in sewage overflows thanks to major, multimillion dollar efforts to capture and reduce the amount of rainfall that seeps into the sewage system.

Those efforts also include clean-up and containment of polluted hotspots such as Striker Bay in Duluth and Superior’s Hog Island Inlet and Newton Creek.

Natural resource officials say the removal of the first beneficial-use impairment “marks a critical milestone” in celebrating how far the river has come and how much work has been done to restore it to a healthier condition. They hope to knock one or more impairments off per year, so that all nine are removed roughly by 2020, after which the “Area of Concern” label would be completely removed for the Twin Ports.

Diane Desotelle, Area of Concern coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said resource managers are walking a fine line by trying to highlight success so far along the river when so many problems — from legacy pollutants to habitat loss — still need to be addressed.

“We want to be able to address each of these impairments and check them off one by one and then be able to celebrate it when we get there,’’ Desotelle said. “Yes, a lot more work needs to be done, absolutely. But it’s important that the public know what work has been done, how much the river has improved.”

After aesthetics is checked off the list, the next effort will target “fish tumors and deformities,” probably by 2016 or sooner. Targets to come later include restricted fish consumption because of mercury and other contaminants, threats to fish and wildlife populations, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, lack of diversity among bottom-dwelling organisms, restrictions on dredging activities because of polluted sediment, decreased water quality because of high nutrient and sediment levels, and high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria that spur beach closures.

“We’re never going to get to complete restoration, to have the river the way it was before the problems started,” Desotelle said. “But I’m a glass-half-full person. We can try to get it back to a thriving (eco)system. We’re getting there.”

Get involved

A public meeting Thursday will provide information and answer questions on the plan to remove the federal “aesthetic impairment’’ listing for the lower St. Louis River. The meeting will run from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at the Superior Public Library, 1530 Tower Ave. Copies of the plan are available at www.pca.state.mn.us and at the Duluth and Superior public libraries. Written comments must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. July 17 to Matt Steiger, WDNR, 1701 N. Fourth St., Superior, WI 54880, or faxed to Steiger at (715) 392-7993. For more information, call (715) 395-6904.

John Myers
(218) 723-5344
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