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Duluth EPA lab turns 50: Low profile, high outcome science mostly behind the scenes

Similar to the role the white rat plays in other scientific testing, the EPA Lab uses medaka fish to test water quality. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
Ecologist Tom Hollenhorst attaches the fins to an underwater glider he and Paul McKinney (background), a postdoc in ecology, are testing in a tank in a lab at the EPA on Wednesday. When deployed, the glider does continuous sensing of water quality, temperature and more in the Great Lakes. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
Horsehair worms munch on sediment in a tank in one of the EPA's research labs in Duluth. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
The Environmental Protection Agency lab in eastern Duluth near the Lester River will be 50 years old this summer. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
Evan Timmerman, an aquatic biologist at the EPA lab in Duluth, feeds brine shrimp to African clawed frogs recently. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Dale Hoff, division director of the EPA lab in Duluth, stands in one of the labs while describing the research the facility does on frogs, fish and invertebrates to track water quality. The lab will have an open house on Wednesday to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

In a small, neon-lit room, hundreds of African clawed frogs swim and jump in aquariums, unaware of their role in testing toxic chemicals' effects on thyroid function.

In another room, Japanese medaka fish are reared to create the perfect aquatic lab rats for ecosystem testing over multiple generations; the small fish mate and reproduce every 200 days.

Down the hall, scientists are testing a torpedo-shaped glider that can "swim'' across Lake Superior collecting data on depth, temperature, sediments, algae growth and more — for up to 130 days at a time — no matter the weather above the surface.

The Environmental Protection Agency's Mid Continent Ecology Division laboratory in Duluth is famous, among aquatic scientists, for developing scientific protocols used worldwide to measure how toxic chemicals affect the environment.

One of four water ecology labs the EPA operates, and the only one focusing on fresh water, the Duluth facility doesn't necessarily test how a specific pesticide might affect frogs in any specific pond.

Instead, scientists here develop the standards by which scientists elsewhere can test that chemical to see how it's changing aquatic life.

It's the science behind the science, said Dale Hoff, the lab's director for the past year.

"We mostly keep our heads down and don't make a lot of headlines. But that's our job,'' Hoff said. "We aren't involved in (federal water quality) policy or regulation. But we do provide the science that eventually leads to policy and regulation."

Yet the lab's work developing those protocols — testing chemicals and families of chemicals on rainbow trout, African frogs, fathead minnows and in computer models — is largely unknown in its hometown.

That might change a little Wednesday when the Duluth EPA lab opens its doors to the public to celebrate its 50th anniversary.

Knowledge gaps filled

The lab was built on the big lake not just for the great view, but for access to ample clean water that serves as the basis for its research. Legend has it that a new congressional aide named Jim Oberstar helped pick the site. Oberstar worked for Blatnik and the powerful House Public Works Committee that Blatnik headed. Later, after he was elected to Congress and served on the same committee, Oberstar returned to visit the lab often, extolling its work.

"He (Blatnik) may have wanted it here because it's his district, but it also made sense. There really isn't a better place. We need a lot of water,'' Hoff said.

Donald Mount, a scientist who headed the Duluth lab from 1967 to 1980, said the lab helped fill in huge gaps in scientific knowledge just as the nation was becoming aware of the severity of pollution, everything from paper mills and steel mills to DDT and PCBs.

It was a time when the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire and when the St. Louis River in Duluth was so choked with city and industrial sewage that many fish couldn't reproduce.

"The 1965 Water Quality Act required states to set water quality standards, but they didn't know what they should be,'' Mount said. "There were two labs in the nation that figured out what those standard should be, and we were one of them."

There was very little data showing at what level chemicals became toxic, Mount noted, recalling growing up on a farm in Ohio and being unable to catch fish in the Ohio River. The fish had died because of industrial and municipal waste.

"We used to have fish kills all across the country all the time, and people wanted to know what was causing them. Now, fish kills are uncommon. You hardly ever hear about them,'' Mount said, noting work at the Duluth lab has helped achieve that mark.

Mount is scheduled to give a short speech at Wednesday's celebration. He said he's "going to remind people of what it was like back then. I don't think they realize how bad it was."

The lab started with just eight scientists that first year. Now, there are 64 federal staff researchers and 80 contract support staff. That's down a bit from about 200 employees at the lab's peak of activity.

Hoff said Wednesday's event is as much to thank the community for being a good host as it is to blow the lab's own horn.

"We've had a lot of people come through here who are part of the community — they go to churches, are soccer coaches, are good neighbors — and people really don't know what we do,'' Hoff said. "But because this is such a great community — the lake, the schools, the city — we've been able to attract world-class scientists here, the best people in their fields."

National research, local issues

While the Duluth lab has focused on setting national standards, it also has been called on to investigate some of Minnesota's most pressing and controversial environmental concerns.

In the 1990s, Duluth lab researchers were on the cutting edge of deformed frog research after Minnesota schoolchildren found frogs in farm ponds with multiple extra legs, eyes in the wrong places and missing limbs.

The lab also did groundbreaking work in the field of endocrine disruptors, chemicals that can change the very nature of how cells develop — the kind of stuff that can cause male fish to develop female sex organs, as has occurred in water downstream of sewage treatment plants in Minnesota and elsewhere.

Now, EPA scientists are helping develop baseline research used in the St. Louis River Restoration Initiative, an effort to clean up toxic sediments, recreate fish and wildlife habitat and restore the estuary's ecological resources.

But perhaps the highest-profile effort of the Duluth lab was to investigate the impact of asbestos-like fibers in Lake Superior caused by the discharge of taconite tailings into Lake Superior at the former Reserve Mining taconite processing plant in Silver Bay.

"It was probably 80 percent of what we were doing at that point,'' in the 1970s, Mount said, noting there were federal agency hearings, a state court trial and eventually a federal court trial and ruling that the company had to stop dumping the tailings into Lake Superior.

"I spent a week on the witness stand during the state trial,'' Mount said.

In one hearing "they asked 'Dr. Mount, do you drink Duluth water?' And I had to tell them I didn't. I was well aware of the dangers of asbestos in the water,'' said Mount, who lives in Two Harbors.

Mount also testified at a federal agency hearing on whether the Reserve tailings were spreading across the state line into Wisconsin, a key factor in moving the battle into federal court.

"I had to tell them, yes, there was evidence it was crossing state lines,'' Mount said.

After a year-long trial, Federal Judge Miles Lord in 1974 ruled that Reserve was spurring a human and environmental health risk and that the company had to change to on-land tailings disposal, which started in 1980. Water quality in western Lake Superior quickly improved, and the asbestos-like fibers are no longer considered a threat to environmental or human health.

Here today, gone tomorrow?

While their work continues at full pace, there's no doubt that a pall has been cast over the EPA and all its employees. President Trump hasn't quite made good on his campaign promise to eliminate the EPA, but his proposed 2018 budget would certainly pin the agency's ears back — a 31.4 percent cut for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

Most importantly for the Duluth lab, the EPA's scientific research and development budget would be cut in half. The president's budget would zero-out grants to states for nonpoint source pollution (such as farm and city runoff) lead, underground storage tanks, pollution prevention and beach protection. Trump's budget also would eliminate the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and similar programs aimed at restoring Chesapeake Bay and the Everglades in Florida, and it would end radon detection and environmental justice programs.

Hoff said he couldn't comment on the proposed cuts, saying only that "we'll have to deal with whatever is decided."

That will come as Congress and the administration debate the 2018 budget in coming months. Several Washington watchers say it's unlikely Congress will allow the agency to be so eviscerated. Congress restored nearly all of Trump's proposed cuts to the EPA budget in the supplemental 2017 budget passed in March, and Trump signed the compromise bill.

Some people say any additional cuts will hamstring the agency's ability to protect environmental and human health, that more Flint, Mich., water crises and more Lake Erie algae blooms are likely if the agency is reduced.

The EPA's national staffing was at 15,376 in 2016, down 3,000 from 1999 levels. If Trump's budget were enacted, analysts say, it would cut another 3,000 employees.

"Politics is going to decide it,'' Mount said. "You have to hope they care about science and clean water."

If you go

  • What: Duluth EPA lab 50th anniversary celebration
  • When: Wednesday, Noon to 7 p.m.
  • Where: 6201 Congdon Blvd. (Highway 61 and London Road just east of the Lester River.)
  • Cost: Free and open to the public.
  • Activities: Meet scientists, laboratory tours, hands-on science activities; rededication ceremony at 5 p.m.

EPA lab timeline

  • 1961 — U.S. Rep. John Blatnik, D-Minn., sponsors amendment to the new Federal Water Pollution Act to create federal water quality labs in key areas of the United States. Blanik picks Duluth (in his home district) as the Great Lakes site.
  • 1965 — Construction starts on the site, donated by the City of Duluth, near the Lester River. Clarence Tarzwell is hired as first director for the lab, which is part of the federal Public Health Service.
  • 1967 — New lab is formally dedicated in July, then under the federal Water Pollution Control Administration. Donald Mount is hired as director.
  • 1970 — Congress and Pres. Richard Nixon create the new Environmental Protection Agency to oversee all federal pollution control efforts, including the Duluth lab.
  • 1995 — Duluth facility is re-named EPA Mid-Continent Ecology Division.
  • 2001 — A $2 million expansion of the facility adds 13,000 square feet of public meeting space, offices and labs.
  • 2017 — Lab turns 50. Work focusing on developing baseline scientific data/protocol for testing chemical impacts on organisms.
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