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Local View: Time running out to tap federal St. Louis River cleanup funding

Kristi S. EilersTime is running out to secure federal funding to clean up the St. Louis River estuary and the Duluth Harbor. Thirty years ago, this area was designated an Area of Concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. For years, we've been working on a plan and a path to clean up the river.

Now politics-as-usual is jeopardizing that dream.

Contaminated sediment in the St. Louis River is the biggest challenge left in the cleanup and restoration of the headwaters of Lake Superior. For years, the problem seemed insurmountable. The St. Louis River Alliance joined others in a community commitment to muster the courage to confront the problem. Detailed research led to science-based decision-making and a belief that a real cleanup could be done.

The failed bonding bill of 2016, which included $12.7 million for St. Louis River cleanup, continues to cast a long shadow over bonding deliberations so far this year. Despite the best of intentions, progress on a 2017 bonding bill appears to be mired in political posturing.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the continued availability of matching federal cleanup funds. The state must chip in $25.4 million to receive $47.2 million in federal funding through the EPA's Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, for a total of $72.6 million.

To show they are serious about the St. Louis River cleanup effort, Gov. Mark Dayton and a group of lawmakers — including Rep. Liz Olson, DFL-Duluth; Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth; Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope; and Sen. Erik Simonson, DFL-Duluth — have introduced bills in the House and Senate to allocate the full $24.5 million for the project.

While we are thankful for such leadership on this initiative, the bottom line is we are running out of time. It is not a question of if but when another Great Lakes state funds its own cleanup project and snatches the matching federal funds away from Minnesota. That means Minnesota taxpayers could be on the hook for the full $72.6 million, making cleanup a much more expensive endeavor.

While the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative enjoys broad bipartisan support among federal lawmakers and funding for the program is guaranteed by a continuing resolution that goes through March, the EPA is in the crosshairs for budget cuts, including $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. This puts the future of this important program in doubt.

Right now the St. Louis River cleanup project has federal support, state support, and local support. The funding is available, but we need the Legislature to act if we want to make the project affordable. If we wait too long, Minnesota taxpayers may have to pay three times the amount to continue cleaning up the St. Louis River.

Can we really afford to do that?

Kristi S. Eilers of Duluth is executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance.


2016 News Tribune file photo

University of Minnesota Duluth research assistants Amber White and Dan Fraser examine a sample of St. Louis River water and sediment before testing for mercury levels. This was in August when multiple research projects were underway to determine why so much mercury in the river becomes toxic and builds up in fish.