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Duluth gets serious about St. Louis River estuary cleanup

A large claw on a crane on the Dean R. Smith crane barge rises from St. Louis Bay dripping with water while carrying a load of dredging materials. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)1 / 7
Crane operator Travis Pimble on the Alton Andrew crane barge takes dredge material from a scow and drops it onto a feed hopper with a grate. Water sprayed on the material causes it to fall through the grate and into the water below, where it's sucked up and pumped to a desired location in St. Louis Bay by a hydraulic dredge (left). (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)2 / 7
Brandon Hilsen, dredge operator, uses a large claw to collect dredge materials from a location in St. Louis Bay that will placed in a scow and pumped to locations to build underwater habitat in the area. He works aboard the Dean R. Smith crane barge. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)3 / 7
This is a look inside a partially filled dredge scow showing dredging materials. These will be removed by crane and pumped into St. Louis Bay to create new underwater habitat. Once the material is gone, a new full scow will be moved into place. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)4 / 7
Operator Wade Johnson uses a hydraulic dredge to pump dredge material at the bottom of an underwater storage area (at right) through a pipe and into St. Louis Bay to create underwater habitat. The scene took place on the Alton Andrew crane barge. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)5 / 7
Dredge operators (right) on board the Alton Andrew crane barge do mechanical work on a scow used to hold dredging materials at a dredge in St. Louis Bay at 21st Avenue West earlier this month. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)6 / 7
The tug Callie M. moves an empty scow into position next to a full one fastened to the Marine Tech crane barge Dean R. Smith, which is dredging a channel in Superior Bay. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)7 / 7

Discerning observers and users of the Duluth-Superior harbor probably have noted a busier season than usual in the span of water between the two port cities.

Double the dredging rigs and more frequent tug-and-barge traffic fill the St. Louis River estuary with nearly around-the-clock work. Operators and laborers boat in and out at shift change. Overnights since early July, diesel motors hum and industrial spotlights glow in St. Louis Bay.

But on a recent September morning, it was a warm westerly breeze that met a contractor’s survey boat at one of the public access docks on Rice’s Point.

“Stern lines are off,” hollered Jim Sharrow of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority, one of multiple agencies represented on a field trip that launched to visit one of the dredging operations, from which sandy dredged material is pulled out of the shipping industry’s navigational channel to maintain adequate depth for ships.  

For the first time locally, that material is being recycled back in the water from which it came. Currently, it’s being pumped back into the water to create habitat in the shallows of the St. Louis Bay adjacent to 21st Avenue West.

After three years of intensive study within the estuary to determine if dredged material was clean and safe enough to be reused in the water, a nearly 30-year-old intention to clean up the harbor and have the estuary delisted from the roll-call of Great Lakes’ blighted places has begun in earnest this year.

Officially, there are 14 Areas of Concern at the headwaters of Lake Superior. The areas start with the Minnesota Slip, berth of the William A. Irvin, and range 10 miles upriver, including several other slips and well-known industrial sites — among them the U.S. Steel Superfund site in Morgan Park.   

The estuary was identified for cleanup in 1987 by the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, a commitment between the United States and Canada spawned during an era of environmental awakening and designed to protect the lakes and restore more than 40 other hot spots across the lakes.    

“These are areas where legacy issues had accrued to a point where the environment was significantly altered, damaged or in some cases compromised,” said Nelson French, supervisor for the Lake Superior Unit of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency based in Duluth. “These were all activities of a human nature that took place as we settled the area — well before the awareness of the ’70s and environmental regulation.”

Aboard one of the dredging rigs, the warm breeze stirred tongues of water that lapped at the mechanical island. An old coal scow about the length of a football field was moored to the rig and nearly filled to capacity with dredged material.   

Inside the rig house, Ted Smith, owner and president of the Duluth-based contractor Marine Tech, showed off a computer monitor that featured a colorful diagram of the hundreds of overlapping bites that had been used to dredge a portion of the channel.  

Out on the deck of the rig, Smith explained the difference between the two heavy clam buckets used to draw material from the freshwater floor.

“We use this bucket for muck,” he said, before pointing out the smaller, but heavier bucket in use. “We use this one for sand. The sand consolidates and gets a lot harder at the bottom.”

Moments later the bucket surfaced dripping wet like a face pulled from a sink — another 4 ½ yards of material to add to the scow.

An aha moment

Every year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers contracts with a dredging outfit to pull out  100,000 cubic yards of material from the local port’s navigation channel. It was never perfect enough to keep an ideal channel, but just enough to keep the massive ships’ rudders from shoaling.

Historically, the dredged material was taken to the 80-acre Erie Pier in West Duluth, where it was tested and separated into sand and “fines,” which contain clay and organic material. Over time, the materials came to be regarded as recyclable and were distributed for on-land project use.

But beginning this summer and for the next several years, roughly triple the usual annual harvest is expected to be dredged.

“We’re widening back to the original authorized limits of the channel,” said Sharrow, the Port Authority’s director of port planning and resiliency.

Such an extra amount of material would be so much as to overflow Erie Pier. But an aha moment during a 2012 Harbor Technical Advisory Committee meeting found Sharrow and French eyeballing each other with a shared understanding of possibility.

“We started to realize the material coming out of the channel might be clean enough to help dress up and clean up or enhance the shallow areas of the bay that still had these beneficial use impairments,” Sharrow said.  

The impairments that characterize the 14 Areas of Concern throughout the estuary include things like contaminated sediments, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, a degradation of healthy vegetation and benthic macroinvertebrate communities, erosion and the loss of beaches or aesthetics.

A three-year study on the use of dredged material to restore habitat at the 21st Avenue West shallows has proven to be a revelation.

The goal of the habitat work was to bring back vegetation and benthic community — telltale signs of a functioning aquatic ecosystem.

“There’s still some habitat improvement to be done,” said Dan Breneman, project manager for the local MPCA. “But we’re getting there. There’s a certain catch-per-unit effort for walleye and muskie that are being met, and sturgeon is pretty close. The avian populations are good.”

In July, the MPCA’s aquatic habitat restoration project at the 21st Avenue West shallows claimed a State Government Innovation Award from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The project was identified as a win-win for the way it matched the needs of the shipping industry with the goals of the larger project, titled the St. Louis River Remedial Action Plan.

From back of the line to front

A career spent in conservation and work for the environment saw French join the local MPCA unit in 2011 after having left his executive directorship with the Kinnickinnic River Land Trust in Wisconsin.

Shortly after he arrived he found a letter in his new Duluth office.

“The letter was written in 2009 from this agency to the Environmental Protection Agency suggesting the cost to clean up the estuary was going to be between $1.7 billion and $17.1 billion dollars,” French said. “They just did a straight-line analysis as if the whole side of this river was contaminated and they did the range between $100 and $1,000 per cubic yard.”

Those figures were a non-starter and indicative of the analysis that left the estuary unaddressed in the nearly 30 years since it was first flagged for cleanup in 1987.

“We were in a bucket way at the end with a whole list of Areas of Concern that didn’t have their act together,” French said.

But in the years since, core samplings and diligent work from the aforementioned and additional entities — including the Minnesota and Wisconsin departments of natural resources, U.S Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — were used to create the overarching St. Louis River Remedial Action Plan that would address the 14 Areas of Concern.

Their strategic and scientifically supported roadmap to delisting the St. Louis River estuary changed the perception of Duluth’s willingness to address its river.

According to their plan, some of the areas, like the dead-water shallows off 21st and 40th avenues west, would require habitat restoration while others would be dredged of contaminated sediment and then capped with freshly dredged material.

It’s important to note that all dredged material being put back into the river is tested so that no contaminated materials are reintroduced into the water.

“All the material has to be tested before it’s moved,” Breneman said. “If a certain dredge prism doesn’t meet standards, we don’t use it.”    

The MPCA’s partnership with the Army Corps of Engineers to move dredged material around the harbor was the innovation that stitched the plan together.

“It’s taken many years to get this relationship built,” said Steve Brossart, Duluth area engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers. “It’s a testament to this harbor that it got together to accomplish something special.”

Beyond the roughly $70 million cleanup of the U.S. Steel site in Morgan Park that is being split between the company and the federal government, the pricetag for the cleanup and restoration of the remaining sites is expected to come in around $76 million and be paid for with a mix of state bond money and other funding sources available to the myriad agencies, including access to money from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, a $300 million a year program approved by Congress a handful of years ago that sunsets in 2021.

It was the overarching plan to clean up the estuary that gave the local community the clout it needed to access those funds.    

“We moved from being basically way out there to running in first place,” French said. “We’re now poised to be done by 2019 or 20 and we’re in the queue for beaucoup federal funds for 2017-18-19 and 2020, if necessary.”

A plan worth replicating

In Cleveland, the state of Ohio and Cuyahoga County Port Authority are involved in a convoluted lawsuit with the Army Corps of Engineers over the disposal of dredged material.

It’s an example of how difficult it can be for the myriad parties involved to come together.  

But aboard the survey boat propelled by a quiet, four-stroke 225-horse Mercury outboard on the Superior Bay, Brossart and the others from disparate agencies were all smiles.

The engineer with the Army Corps pointed out that some of the shallows off 21st Avenue West are being built to rise to within a couple feet of the water’s surface. Other areas along the estuary will be brought up to include small islands. An aerial view of the 14 Areas of Concern reveals 1,700 acres of aquatic habitat that feature mostly inviting green-space shorelines.       

“Different harbors are looking at this,” Brossart said. “It should start to get replicated.”

The goal is to delist the estuary by 2025, following a five-year observation period at each of the corrected areas.  

The work in the coming years will move from one Area of Concern to the next. Minnesota Slip is on the docket for late 2017, when the Irvin will be brought into dry dock following its popular Haunted Ship attraction.

It’s an ambitious timeline that replaces what is traditionally a protracted and piecemeal approach to cleanup.

“Historically what happens is you get as much money as you can to do what you can,” French said. “You might do 50 acres on one site that is a 300-acre site. We had the approach we could step back and really almost blue sky it.”

Removing the stigma of a contaminated and blighted estuary comes at an ideal time — when the city is touting its western corridor as its next growth opportunity.  

That a 30-year stasis now features an endpoint on a blue horizon is something that tickles French’s conservation sensibilities. He is scheduled to retire before the last site is addressed, but he’ll be leaving to his North Shore dream home content in the knowledge that the St. Louis River estuary will be whole again.   

“The efficiencies, the effectiveness, the creativity, the innovation coming through this thing is amazing,” he said. “It’s mind-blowing, actually. It really is.”

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