The state's project to restore an Indigenous cemetery disturbed by roadway construction in 2017 has been delayed again.
The start of cemetery reconstruction along Minnesota Highway 23 in the Fond du Lac neighborhood has been moved to next spring, more than a year beyond its originally planned start. This marks the fourth delay to start restoration, from fall 2020, to spring 2021, to fall 2021, to spring 2022.
The Minnesota Department of Transportation reported the latest delay during a virtual public meeting about the project. MnDOT cited ongoing work to locate burial remains for what it hopes is the latest, final delay.
"Once we’re able to start it, we should be able to work on it until it’s completed," MnDOT project manager Randy Costley said. "The reason we did it is we still have soil processing work going on out there."
The cemetery restoration project originally had been scheduled to start in fall 2020, after Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa members decided on a simple design to rebuild the cemetery desecrated in 2017.
But the restoration project has only seen delays since then. MnDOT has cited permitting issues, tardiness with its final design plans and ongoing soil processing for remains for the continued stalls in progress. At one point in 2019, the agency announced soil sifting had been completed, but that turned out to be only a milestone portion of the work, but not all of it.
"We've been processing soil for two more years since then," Costley said. "We should have been specific. There were other piles on the site after that announcement."
Crews from the Fond du Lac Band have been contracted to continue to sift through soils in search of remains and burial artifacts.
Construction work on the site was halted in June 2017, when a Minnesota Highway 23 bridge replacement project over Mission Creek in the Fond du Lac neighborhood was found to be displacing cemetery remains.
That original $3.1 million bridge replacement project has been dwarfed by ensuing costs. By the time MnDOT puts in its Highway 23 bridge replacement over Mission Creek in 2024, costs for the whole scenario will have gone beyond $20 million.
As of right now, there is one pile of soil remaining to be sifted, Costley said. Technicians will then take a closer look at "interface" areas where soil piles intermixed with existing soils.
"That work is probably going to go on for the rest of the summer," Costley said.
Stormwater permits at the site are an issue, too, Costley said, explaining that the permit for existing work is separate from the permit for upcoming restoration work, and overlapping the two would present difficulties. By moving cemetery restoration to 2022, the permits won't coincide.
The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council and Fond du Lac Band have been decision-making, along with MnDOT, when it comes to the project, Costley said.
When cemetery restoration does begin next year it will be to return the cemetery grounds to a more natural beauty, a concept chosen by the band last year. Landscapers will reforest the hillside cemetery and uncover a natural spring currently piped underground through the cemetery. The restored cemetery would be marked by a stone border wall. Work is estimated at up to $1.7 million.
MnDOT continues to plan the Highway 23 bridge reconstruction project in 2024 at a $4.2 million price tag. The bridge will be considerably higher off the water than the bridge it's replacing.
Draft plans of the bridge show it at grade 4-6 feet higher than the existing bridge, which plugged with debris during the 2012 flood.
"Structurally, the bridge didn't fail, but its hydraulic opening wasn't large enough," Costley said. "This new one will be designed for an event of that size, to pass not only the increasing water volume, but also the debris load."
Four-lane traffic in the area has been restricted to the eastbound lanes throughout the project area since work began in 2017.