A funny thing happened Sept. 25, 1978, when they flipped the switch to turn on the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District sewage treatment plant in Duluth for the first time.

It worked.

The network of pipes and pumps and tanks and treatment pools and chemistry all contributed as designed to clean harmful bacteria and other pollution out of the sewage - from not just Duluth homes, but also homes from surrounding areas and industry as far away as Cloquet.

The treatment plant consolidated 17 old facilities, which discharged water that failed to meet clean-water standards, into one single plant that, from day one, met federal water-quality regulations.

When WLSSD-treated effluent flowed back into the harbor, clean, it marked the first time in more than a century that Duluth wasn't fouling its own nest.

The results were stunning and quick. The St. Louis River, free from most paper-mill waste and other pollution, transformed almost immediately. The cleaner water allowed fish to live, reproduce and thrive in the St. Louis River estuary and harbor for the first time in decades. The walleye population skyrocketed. Sturgeon were reintroduced, as were musky. Catfish, smallmouth bass and northern pike also flourished, along with minnows, amphibians, mayflies and other small creatures that form the backbone of the food chain.

And one person has been there every day since even before the plant opened: Jack Ezell, now manager of planning and technical services.

Ezell signed on with the WLSSD on Feb. 4, 1975, as a planning technician. His last day before retirement will be Friday.

"Even we didn't realize how fast things would get better. We figured it would take a few years before the dissolved oxygen issue got resolved and the contaminants flushed out. But we saw an almost immediate improvement," he said.

Ezel, 66, who grew up in Carlton County and still lives near Carlton, said he remembers trips as a youngster to Jay Cooke State Park "and it was just understood that you don't have any contact with the river," he noted, because of waste coming downstream from Cloquet.

Of course there's still pollution in the sediment left from the pre-WLSSD days, but now people swim, fish, kayak and play in the lower river.

"I did my first sampling out there in I think 1975 and the most abundant fish in the river was bullhead. That's not a good sign. It means the predator fish aren't there. ... It was a very sick fishery," said Dennis Pratt, retired Wisconsin fisheries biologist. "When we went back in 1985, it was a remarkable change. Walleye were back. Other species were recovering. You could eat the fish again. Before WLSSD and Superior (wastewater plants) came online you didn't want to eat the fish. They even smelled bad when you tried to cook them. They smelled like a paper mill."

Polluted history

Industries in and around Duluth and Cloquet - from lumber and paper mills to slaughterhouses and steel mills, food processing plants and much more - for a century discharged their wastewater directly to the St. Louis River and harbor virtually untreated, and most municipalities like Duluth treated their residents' wastewater only minimally.

All that stuff severely affected the river by depleting the dissolved oxygen supply, pumping in organic matter, disease-spreading pathogens and toxic materials alike. Noxious odors and large fish kills followed, with little living underwater and few people getting anywhere near it.

All that polluted water was flowing into Lake Superior, the source of Duluth's drinking water. Diseases like typhoid fever and dysentery, spurred by contaminated water, were not uncommon among Duluth's early population.

Thanks in large part to state Rep. Willard Munger of Duluth, one of the state's foremost environmental advocates, the Minnesota Legislature created the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District in 1971. In 1974 additional legislation was passed giving WLSSD authority over solid-waste management. Under the federal Clean Water Act, Congress eventually kicked in 75 percent of the $108 million initial cost for the WLSSD. The state added 15 percent with a 10 percent local contribution. "It's amazing to look out this window every day and see how much this resource has improved and how people are using it," said Marianne Bohren, WLSSD executive director, an Esko native. "We have (generations of residents) now who have only known a river with clean water and its good to know we were part of that. We have people like Jack and other great staff whose priority every day is to keep it that way."

It took six years of construction but the plant opened on Sept. 25, 1978.

"Willard (Munger) really did the heavy lifting. He had to take a few runs at it but he got it passed," Ezell said.

Big changes, big improvements

Ezell says some of the biggest changes over the years came when the district moved away from incinerating sewage sludge, burned along with some regional garbage, and moved to on-land disposal. Treated sewage sludge is now used in nearby farm fields as fertilizer. The move provided a needed fertilizer and eliminated air pollution issues from incineration, Ezell noted.

Since then the district has been landfilling regional garbage but has spearheaded efforts to reduce waste - from paint and household hazardous waste to compostable food waste to grass clippings and reusable stuff like bicycles, old doors and televisions and refrigerators. All of it is collected, reused or recycled properly.

Another huge change came when the WLSSD and city of Duluth were forced by the federal government to stop spilling untreated sewage into Lake Superior every time there was a heavy rain. That so-called inflow and infiltration problem was caused when clean rainwater pushed into sewage pipes across the region, overwhelming the capacity of the lines and pump stations. No matter how well the sewage plant worked under normal flows it couldn't treat waste that spilled out before it got there. Often millions of gallons of untreated sewage/rain mix poured into the lake.

Now - thanks to another more than $100 million in federal, state and local spending - the problem has been essentially solved. Giant storage basins catch overflow and local efforts continue to replace leaky pipes and disconnect sump pumps that allow rain into the sewer pipes.

Now the district is working to build systems to capture heat and otherwise wasted energy from the sewage treatment process to heat and power their facility. A new oxygen production plant is under construction that will "dramatically" cut energy use, Ezell noted.

While there have been almost continual technology upgrades and tweaks here and there, the basic process of treating sewage has worked well through the decades, even as the WLSSD brought on more far flung areas like the near North Shore, Pike Lake, Oliver, Rice Lake Township, the Fond du Lac Reservation and, potentially, Big Lake west of Cloquet.

"The plant has been amazingly resilient," Ezell said. "Most people don't think about what we do until a problem comes up. Out of sight, out of mind ... But I'm pretty proud of what we've been able to do here. WLSSD is cutting edge on a lot of major issues."

Ezell attended his last ever meeting of regional solid waste managers Friday as they look to find a long-term solution for the portion of the region's garbage that can't be recycled or reused. After all, that's what planners do.

"We're still going to need some place to put that portion of our solid waste," Ezell. "We're looking five, 10 years down the line on what happens when Superior (municipal landfill) closes and we have to somewhere else."

Party in October

The WLSSD will hold its 40th anniversary party from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. October 13, in conjunction with the Lincoln Park Business District open house event The WLSSD will offer walking and bus tours of the main campus at 27th Avenue West as well as activities, games, prizes and refreshments.