A proposed plan released Monday by the city of Duluth calls for a scenic railroad line to be replaced and retained as part of the pending cleanup of the former U.S. Steel mill site on the banks of the St. Louis River.

Mayor Emily Larson’s administration earlier had advanced a proposal to shorten the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, converting a portion of it to a recreational trail, but project details outlined in a just-published environmental worksheet do not preclude the preservation of the popular volunteer-run line in its entirety.

“At least they’re not closing the door on it,” said Mike Poupore, chairman of the Duluth Preservation Commission, a body which successfully advocated for the City Council to designate the scenic line as a local landmark earlier this month.

Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, agreed that the plan for the cleanup site keeps the city’s options open regarding the future of the rail line, which it owns. For the next 30 days, the city will accept public comment on the EAW, which is available for review online.

Yet Filby Williams warned against reading too much into the project details laid out in the proposed EAW.

“Because the city of Duluth’s negotiation with U.S. Steel is so far-reaching and complex, we knew it was going to take a couple of years to negotiate. And we felt like the most prudent thing was to negotiate on the assumption that we would ask U.S. Steel to restore the rail in working condition, unless and until there was a positive decision by the City Council to not have it restored,” he said.

“So, in the absence of a final decision by the council, we continue to negotiate on the assumption that it will be put back in place,” Filby Williams said.

U.S. Steel operated its Duluth facility from 1916 to 1981, producing coke, iron and steel. The now-shuttered operations left behind a legacy of pollution, and the EAW said: “The purpose of the project is to address chemical constituents of concern, primarily polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and associated heavy metals (including lead, copper and zinc), in the Spirit Lake area, and to support the eventual de-listing of the Saint Louis River Area of Concern.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency proposes to remove 770,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments and cap in place about 107 acres of contaminants now covered by water. As proposed, the project also would involve “41 acres of enhanced natural recovery” and more than 100 acres of “habitat enhancement and restoration.”

The EAW calls for the removal of tracks to facilitate the cleanup, but it is explicit in its commitment to restore the rail line.

The worksheet says: “Although the tourist railroad operations will need to be temporarily suspended for the full three construction seasons on the track segment that bisects the site, the intent of the project design is to minimize impacts to the railroad and provide for site restoration to address impacts where possible.”

The document goes on to state: “Temporary suspension of the railroad operations on the segment within the project footprint will produce some recreational and economic impacts to the LSMRR; however, upon project completion, the railroad will be restored and the area of the site surrounding the rail will be in an improved ecological and aesthetic condition, thus positively impacting the recreational role of the historically important tourist rail.”

The project area detailed in the EAW does not extend to the Mud Lake causeway that carries the scenic rail line across to its current terminus at the Oliver Bridge. The potential removal of this final segment of the railroad has been the subject of heated public discussion in recent years.

The Duluth Parks Commission is expected to weigh in on the final disposition of the LS&M Railroad when it next meets at 5 p.m. on Aug. 13, after hearing city staff’s thoughts on the matter.

When asked Monday whether City Hall’s position on the railroad had evolved or shifted over the past several months, Filby Williams said: “The administration is considering its final recommendation as we speak, in preparation for that August Parks Commission meeting.”

Ultimately the Parks Commission’s advisory recommendation will then go to the City Council, which will have the final say on the future configuration of the railroad.

To learn more

To view the EAW, visit duluthmn.gov/planning-development/environmental/environmental-assessment-worksheets. A hard copy of the document also may be viewed at the Duluth Planning and Development Division offices, in Room 160 at City Hall, 411 W. First St. Comments will be accepted through Aug. 21.