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Massive reclamation project under way at former US Steel site

The Superfund cleanup promises environmental and future economic benefits.

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Dump trucks add dirt to the walls of lined holding cells at the former U.S. Steel site Dec. 11. U.S. Steel's Duluth Works operated from 1916 to 1981, producing coke, iron and steel and leaving behind polluted soil and river sediment. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

For 75 years, the U.S. Steel Duluth Works plant in Morgan Park provided what at large City Councilor Arik Forsman referred to as "the economic heartbeat" of the community. But when the facility ceased operations in 1981, it left behind a site deeply contaminated by polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons from coal tar waste, with metals, including copper, lead and zinc, in the mix.

The buildings are long gone, yet for decades the idle fenced-off property has lingered as a painful scar, reminding locals of a once-proud industrial past.

Lately, however, the grounds of the former mill once again have stirred to life, with dozens of trucks coming and going, excavators on the move and workers crisscrossing the property in a carefully choreographed fashion.

The effort to collect and safely contain remaining contaminated sediments on the site began in earnest in late October, and the cleanup of the Superfund site is expected to stretch into 2022 and possibly even 2023, said Diana Mally, project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. In all, more than 700,000 cubic yards of impacted sediments are expected to be processed.

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Heavy equipment moves dirt at the U.S. Steel site. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

"The city is excited to see this long-awaited cleanup proceed, and we're grateful to generations of citizen advocates and agency professional and USS leaders who have gotten us to this point," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of parks, properties and libraries.

"This is not the only remaining cleanup to be undertaken on the site. But it is, by far, the biggest remaining, and it will move us a long way toward fully reopening and redeveloping this area of town," he said.

Two lined cells have been created to process contaminated sediments from an unnamed creek that runs through the property. Trucks have been hauling in cement, fly ash and sand that will be mixed with those dewatered sediments in the cells to help stabilize them before they are placed in raised and capped areas called confined disposal facilities. Water from the process will be captured in the lined cells and will be treated before it is released back into the environment, Mally said. The CDFs will range in height from about 10 to 20 feet.

The winter is an opportune time to tackle this work, she explained, since water flows are typically reduced to a minimum. The project will create a new channel for the waterway.

"The wetter the sediments, the harder they are to transport. And it's also harder to contain material as you're doing the dredging without more amendments to get the sediments firmed up," Mally said.

The benefits of the cleanup are likely to be multifaceted, according to Filby Williams.

"First and foremost, it is going to substantially restore the health of the environment in our estuary and protect public health against contaminant hazards. In addition, it's going to expand public access to another 1.6 miles of riverfront, create a new mode for economic development and job creation and really improve the quality of life in our western neighborhoods," he said.

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Work on cleaning up the U.S. Steel site along the St. Louis River in Morgan Park began this year. The EPA proposes to remove 770,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments and cap in place about 107 acres of contaminants now covered by water. (Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com)

Forsman said it's "exciting on numerous of fronts."

"Certainly, just to have it cleaned up from an environmental perspective is great progress, especially because this has been such a long haul," he said. "So, to get in the position where we are today where work is happening, you just have to offer kudos all around, to U.S. Steel, the Port Authority and other parties with the environmental agencies that have been working on this, because it's been a long time coming."

Filby Williams said it would be a challenge to recognize everyone who has had a hand in bringing the project forward.

"I could not begin to imagine the number of person hours or the number of publication and report pages that have preceded this exciting moment. It's really kind of dizzying," he said.

Forsman also noted that the project could open new opportunities for economic redevelopment on a scale not possible elsewhere in Duluth.

Filby Williams agreed.

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"In a community where it can be difficult to find 5 acres that are reasonably flat and dry without shallow bedrock, the opportunity to have 400 such contiguous acres is really going to be a game changer for our long-term economic development efforts," he said.

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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