After years of neglect, the site of the long-closed U.S. Steel Duluth Works may be be on the verge of revitalization.

Following decades of steel and cement production, the industrial property along the St. Louis River in western Duluth has the unfortunate distinction of being the most widely contaminated site to be identified in all the Great Lakes Rust Belt, according to Erin Endsley of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

Endsley has been tapped to serve as project leader of a federal Superfund cleanup of the industrial wasteland which is estimated to harbor more than 1.65 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, both on solid ground and submerged throughout an adjacent estuary. That’s enough material to fill 103,125 four-axle dump trucks. If parked bumper to bumper, that number of trucks would form a line that stretches from Duluth past Chicago.

There’s no plan to haul all the contaminated sediment away. Much of it will be left in place or impounded in cells on site, which will be capped and monitored to detect any unwanted spread.

A noxious laundry list of contaminants can be found on the property, including heavy metals, petroleum products and a host of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons - mostly leftovers from the incomplete combustion of fuels, including the petroleum coke that fed U.S. Steel’s blast furnaces from 1916 until steelmaking stopped in the 1970s, although other parts of the Duluth Works continued to operate until 1981.

John Peterson, a spokesman for the federal Environmental Protection Agency, said the contaminants “present both human health and ecological risks at the site.”

“The EPA is working with U.S. Steel, under the authority of the Great Lakes Legacy Act to delineate the extent of contamination in St. Louis River sediments adjacent to the former U.S. Steel Duluth Works site, and to select and design a remedy for remediating these sediments,” he said.

Most of the site still is owned by U.S. Steel. The Duluth Seaway Port Authority has acquired a small portion away from the river - the former Atlas Cement property - where it has been working to establish an industrial park. And the city owns a railroad corridor along the river.

Discussions about the scope of the remediation work and the future use of the property are likely to inspire lively debate as more details emerge about the cleanup, which Endsley aims to commence next year.

Public process

While city officials are eager to see the work begin, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, said it’s important that residents get a chance to weigh in on what will become of the city-owned waterfront railroad corridor that will be torn up in the course of cleaning up the Superfund site.

Mayor Don Ness and his administration in the past year have placed an emphasis on revitalizing and developing the St. Louis River corridor in western Duluth.

“In terms of the future vitality of the river corridor, one of our most valuable assets is the continuous 4-mile stretch of publicly owned riverfront. So, protecting the integrity of that asset is enormously important to all Duluthians,” Filby Williams said.

But competing views of what the city should do with the waterfront property are complicating negotiations with U.S. Steel, he said. The volunteer-run Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad currently offers sightseeing trips along the rail corridor.

“Early on, the vision was for a combination of excursion rail and recreational trail access. More recently in the planning for our city-wide park and trail system, the (Park) Commission and the (City) Council have endorsed plans to convert the rail to trail with no reference to retaining rail. But I think as the prospect of the cleanup and the potential disappearance of the rail has become more imminent, the folks who really care about the rail have made their voices heard,” Filby Williams said.

He noted that the city does have some legal leverage.

“We have to negotiate an access, restoration and compensation agreement with U.S. Steel in order for the cleanup to proceed. That agreement needs to include, among other things, an obligation for U.S. Steel to restore city property to an agreed-upon state,” he explained.

Filby Williams said it has become increasingly clear to city administration that community members want to have a voice in determining what the post-cleanup uses of the the city-owned riverfront right-of-way will be.

“They would like us to not decide that question behind closed doors in negotiations with U.S. Steel,” he said.

Push and pull

Initially, city administration requested a six-month public planning process that would precede its negotiations with U.S. Steel.

“We communicated that plan to U.S. Steel and the MPCA and the EPA, and they were unanimous and emphatic that a planning process of that length would unacceptably risk delaying the cleanup another year, and therefore unacceptably risk the possibility of losing federal funding for the project,” Filby Williams said.

U.S. Steel spokeswoman Courtney Boone declined to answer questions about the ongoing negotiations with the city of Duluth, the EPA and the MPCA, other than to say: “We are continuing to work with them through these remediation efforts.”

Endsley said she hopes to reach agreement on a proposed remedy plan this fall to secure federal dollars for the cleanup. She explained there are no guarantees that funding for the Great Lakes Legacy Act, which would provide proposed financial support for the project, will be maintained at current levels.

“The current Great Lakes Legacy project agreement does not include any funds for cleanup activities at the site,” said the EPA’s Peterson. “Funding for the cleanup under GLLA is dependent on U.S. Steel submitting a successful project proposal, and the availability of funding in fiscal years 2016 and 2017.”

Since 2010, the federal program has received EPA funding on an annual basis as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

“We’re doing everything we can to keep the project on track,” Endsley said.

As for Duluth’s request that time be allowed for a public process in the midst of negotiations, she said simply: “It has made things interesting.”

Filby Williams said he believes an expedient solution remains within reach.

“We have committed to both preserve the possibility of restoring rail post-cleanup and give the community input on that question. We are asking U.S. Steel to undergo an unorthodox process that mixes confidential negotiation with public planning. We’ve proposed a process for that, and we’re awaiting a response,” he said.

Defining cleanup’s scope

U.S. Steel, the MPCA and the EPA began their evaluation of the site with 12 different options for the cleanup.

After further review, the list was narrowed to five options, and two of those have since emerged as top-runners, Endsley said.

Native American stakeholders, including the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, favor the most ambitious cleanup, involving the capture and impoundment of about 716,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments, which would be stored behind 20-foot-tall earthen berms. This option would likely require three years to complete at an estimated cost of about $77 million and would consume about 40 acres of land - or about 8 percent of the site - for confined disposal facilities. Such a project would leave about 460 acres of land relatively unencumbered after the cleanup.

Endsley said the more aggressive cleanup also is designed to help better re-establish wild rice beds in the St. Louis River, which are spiritually significant to Native Americans in the area.

But the option currently endorsed as the “preferred alternative” by U.S. Steel and the MPCA would impound a more-modest 684,000 cubic yards of contaminated materials behind a 6- to 9-foot-tall berm. Such a cleanup would cost an estimated $66 million and would take two years to complete. Confined disposal facilities would cover about 23 acres of the site, leaving about 477 acres of land relatively unencumbered after the cleanup.

Each plan seeks to target the most harmful and dangerous contamination, leaving behind some materials where they are unexposed and considered likely to have a relatively benign impact. Some contaminants also will be capped in place and monitored.

Endsley said she hopes to present a proposed plan for public review by mid- to late-October this year. That would initiate a 30-day public comment period, complete with a public meeting, tentatively scheduled for mid-November.

People who wish to see a copy of the proposed cleanup plan when the document is available can arrange to receive it by email or may view it in person at the Duluth Public Library branch in West Duluth.

Footing the bill

Most of the anticipated cost of the cleanup is expected to be borne primarily by U.S. Steel, with help from the EPA, which will consider financial assistance only for contaminated sediments found in the river.

The city of Duluth is not supposed to be on the hook for any of the basic costs. However, Endsley said the city or any other entity interested in habitat restoration or recreation could choose to become a project partner, sharing a relatively small sliver of the financial burden to further its ambitions for reuse of the site.

The future

Should efforts to remediate the contamination at the Superfund site finally gain traction, Filby Williams sees a bright future for the area.

“If we complete a cleanup, as planned with U.S. Steel and (federal Great Lakes National Program Office) funding, the U.S. Steel site will be a tremendous asset, from a neighborhood quality of life perspective, from a residential development perspective, from an economic and industrial development perspective. It will be an enormous boon for all Duluthians,” he predicted.

While there may be some differences of opinion on the best course forward, Filby Williams said he suspects there is a strong consensus on one point.

“There are many stakeholders, and as is always the case in public decisions like this, there is disagreement about this or that individual issue. But I think everybody agrees that the one overarching imperative is that we seize this opportunity to complete the cleanup,” he said.

More information

Find more information from the MPCA about the U.S. Steel Duluth Works Superfund site here.