2018's top stories for the Northland
From politics to pipelines to a fire that made news nationwide, 2018 was a big year for news in the Northland.
The News Tribune newsroom staff voted on a comprehensive list of 57 stories from 2018 to select what we think are the 10 most important stories covered these past 12 months.
Here's a look back at 2018:
Thirty-six people were injured and much of Superior evacuated when an explosion and fire rocked the Husky Energy oil refinery on April 26.
The explosion that morning, later attributed to a worn valve, resulted in a fire that was quickly brought under control. But it also triggered an asphalt fire that burned for hours.
Superior Mayor Jim Paine ordered the large-scale evacuation because of concern that toxic hydrogen fluoride stored at the site might be released. The substance is an additive used by about 50 refineries nationwide to help produce gasoline suitable for vehicles.
The fire never reached the hydrogen fluoride, which was 150 feet away from the unit where the explosion took place. But the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported that shrapnel from the explosion flew as far as 200 feet.
It wasn't until 6 a.m. the next day that Paine lifted the evacuation order after getting the all-clear from the Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
At the time, Paine lauded the work of refinery employees, first responders and others for getting through a significant event with no fatalities.
But Paine also became one of those calling for Husky to remove hydrogen fluoride from the site, saying it was too risky to keep the substance in a populated area. The chemical threatens a 25-mile radius under a worst-case release scenario.
At year's end, Husky Energy hadn't made a decision about the refinery's future use of hydrogen fluoride.
2. A visit from President Donald Trump — and many more
Donald Trump descended on Duluth in 2018, bringing one of his patented campaign rallies to Amsoil Arena. Roughly 8,000 supporters met him inside while hundreds of Democrats, resistance activists and curiosity seekers milled about outside on what was a gorgeous June day.
Ostensibly in Duluth to support Republican candidate for Congress Pete Stauber, the political formalities were set aside early. Trump proceeded to whip his fans into a frenzy by talking about his space force, border security, locking up rivals and negotiating denuclearization with North Korea leader Kim Jong-un.
The president heckled an apprehended protester with "Go back to your mother," and a Rolling Stone journalist covering the event described Duluth as being covered in a thin layer of grime. The insult drew a well-shared retort from Duluth Mayor Emily Larson, and the political season drew other guests, including Senator Bernie Sanders, the popular progressive from Vermont, and Vice President Mike Pence.
But they were just hors d'oeuvres for the masses. Like him or lump him, Trump was the sun blotting out the rest. Stauber never lacked for momentum after the president's visit and Trump delivered with his trademark vanity.
"You ever notice they call the other side the elite?" Trump said on stage at Amsoil. "I have a much better apartment than they do. I'm smarter than they are. I'm richer than they are. I became president and they didn't and I'm representing the most lovely and best people on earth — the deplorables. You remember that?"
Loud cheers registered the crowd's affirmative.
If great moments are born from great opportunity, perhaps nobody seized a great opportunity more than John Shuster and his Duluth Curling Club teammates as they became the first American team to ever win gold in curling, doing so in improbable fashion at the Winter Olympics in February in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
The U.S. rink of Shuster, Tyler George, John Landsteiner and Matt Hamilton (Duluth's Joe Polo was an alternate and Eveleth's Phill Drobnick was the coach) lost four of its first six matches and needed to win its three remaining matches just to qualify for the four-team medal round. The U.S. did just that and then defeated the reigning Olympic and world champion Canadian team in the semifinals to reach the gold-medal match against Sweden's Niklas Edin.
The gold medal set off a whirlwind media tour, capping what some dubbed not just the Minnesota Olympics, but the Duluth Olympics.
Maddie Rooney and Sidney Morin of the Minnesota Duluth women's hockey team helped Team USA win its first Olympic gold medal in 20 years.
Rooney, who is back with the team for her junior season, won the starting goaltender job as a 20-year-old. She made 29 saves in the gold-medal game, plus two dramatic stops in the shootout to defeat Canada.
The team was coached by Duluth native Robb Stauber.
On March 15, Shannon Miller emerged from the front doors of the federal courthouse in Duluth pumping her fists amid cheers and celebratory music from a crowd of supporters.
A jury of 12 awarded the former University of Minnesota Duluth women's hockey coach $3.74 million after an eight-day trial in her lawsuit against her longtime employer.
"It's a big day for women," Miller proclaimed on the courthouse steps that day. "Women in general, but especially women in college athletics." Miller filed a lawsuit against UMD claiming the university discriminated against her on the basis of her sex and retaliated against her for making Title IX complaints when officials decided in December 2014 not to offer her a new contract.
Jurors awarded Miller $744,832 in past lost wages and $3 million for past emotional distress. The judge still has yet to determine if any future lost wages should be added. Miller is asking for $3 million more.
Miller along with two other former UMD employees filed a sexual orientation discrimination lawsuit in state court, but a judge dismissed the lawsuit in October on the grounds that Miller and her team could not bring to court a similar case that a jury had ruled on earlier in the year.
4. (tie) Enbridge Line 3 approval
As pipeline opponents and supporters made their final pitches on sun-soaked St. Paul streets this June, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission unanimously approved the Enbridge Line 3 replacement pipeline.
The pipeline will carry 760,000 barrels of oil per day across 340 miles of northern Minnesota on its route from Alberta to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, replacing the 50-year-old Line 3 although taking a different route through much of the state.
While the PUC's approval pushed the pipeline over a major hurdle — and sparked continuing protests and lawsuits — construction is not yet imminent.
The story continues in 2019 as Enbridge seeks its final state, federal and local permits, and opponents — including outgoing Gov. Mark Dayton's Department of Commerce — take to the courts to stop the project. Environmental and indigenous groups say the pipeline is dangerous and unnecessary; Enbridge and its supporters say the replacement line is needed to improve safety and ensure reliable energy supplies for Minnesota and the region.
6. (tie) Lakewalk doesn't get a break in 2018
The year 2018 was another bad year for the Lakewalk in Duluth.
After taking a big hit in October 2017, the Lakewalk was damaged twice this year by big storms, once in April and again in October. The April 14-15 storm resulted in at least $600,000 in damages — on top of the millions of dollars in damage still left to be repaired from the October 2017 storm.
In June, the city announced it was looking at an estimated $9 million price tag to design and repair the Lakewalk. Then on Oct. 10 another storm hit Duluth and caused even more damage to the Lakewalk.
In Canal Park, sections of the Lakewalk's boards were missing, nowhere to be seen on the ground nearby, and large rocks piled up where the boards once provided a path. Even the paved path crumbled at the strength of Lake Superior and the ground below it was washed away.
The latest total is $20 million in damages between the three storms. The city of Duluth has applied for federal aid to help recoup the costs of storm damage and rebuild the Lakewalk.
Pete Stauber started his winning campaign to become the 8th Congressional District representative in July — of 2017.
With a message of common-sense conservatism and full-throttle support for controversial mining proposals, the Hermantown Republican built a widespread following in 17 months of marathon campaigning which carried him to a decisive election day victory.
As voters nationwide lifted Democrats into the House of Representatives majority, Stauber turned the 8th District red for just the second time in more than 70 years. Stauber drew support for his impeccable background as a national collegiate hockey champion, retired Duluth police officer and husband to a retired commander of the local Air Guard, Jodi Stauber.
Along the way, the candidate Stauber never suffered for enduring an email controversy. A court challenge to unseal roughly two dozen emails he shared from his county commissioner account with a national party election committee turned up bubkes — banal planning details that weren't of the sort to derail his momentum.
Going to Congress as a political minority, Stauber, 52, has preached bipartisanship in the days since his election. He has said his first order of business in January will be to get a federal land swap across the finish line. Approval would help clear the path to start-up for a copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range — "So we can unleash the economic engine in the 8th District and create good-paying jobs for working families in our region," Stauber said.
In 2010, the Duluth Economic Development Authority bought the decrepit NorShor Theatre, which at that time was considered "a cancer that was killing all the properties around it."
So said developer George Sherman, who with ample public support helped cure the cancer and restore the theater to its art deco grandeur. The renovated 600-seat NorShor opened Feb. 1 with "Mama Mia!" and has consistently sold out performances.
"We are proud that our role and ownership is bringing the NorShor Theatre back to life," Sherman said. "We want to thank the many partners involved, particularly the Duluth Playhouse and the city of Duluth. The theater will continue to add vibrancy and energy to downtown Duluth."
The $31 million project was officially launched in 2016 and took a complex public-private partnership of tax incentives, state grants and other support to get across the finish line.
Expect another busy season at the NorShor in 2019, as well as continued fundraising to once again raise the 125-foot tower that once marked the historic theater.
With an April 12 "Kick up the Bricks" celebration, Duluth marked the start of work on the long-anticipated reconstruction of Duluth's Superior Street.
In 2018, the city completed work on the first phase of the project, rebuilding the downtown thoroughfare from Third to Seventh avenues west. The project entailed replacing not only the road but also much of the infrastructure that lay deep below it — including water, sewer, steam, power and gas lines.
Two more phases of the $31.5 million project remain to be constructed over the next two years. The coming year will see the street replaced from Third Avenue West to First Avenue East. And the final phase of the project — from First to Fourth avenues east — should be finished in 2020.
The last overhaul of Superior Street occurred in 1985, when brick pavers were installed throughout the downtown, giving the city a distinct character. Those bricks are now being replaced with tinted concrete, demarking different types of uses.
The project has created some headaches for downtown businesses temporarily deprived of curbside parking spaces, but the city has stepped up with offers of free short-term parking in public parking ramps.
9. (tie) UMD wins national hockey title
Nothing played out the way the University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs expected last season, but their hopes were saved St. Patrick's Day when the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Ohio State Buckeyes in overtime in the Big Ten title game.
That result, along with the results of the WCHA, Atlantic Hockey and NCHC championships, allowed UMD to sneak into the NCAA tournament as the last at-large team by one ten-thousandth of a point in the Ratings Percentage Index over their biggest rival, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
"When you look at the grand scheme of things, it's pretty remarkable, pretty crazy," senior forward Jared Thomas said of returning to the national championship game a year after losing to Denver in Chicago in the 2017 national championship.
The Bulldogs won their second national championship on the same ice they won their first title back in 2011, beating Notre Dame 2-1 before a raucous pro-UMD crowd of 18,303.
News Tribune reporters Brooks Johnson, Tom Olsen, Peter Passi, Adelle Whitefoot, Jon Nowacki, Matt Wellens, Brady Slater and John Lundy contributed to this report.
Most-read local stories on duluthnewstribune.com in 2018
Other stories that made headlines in 2018
- William A. Irvin moved/Minnesota Slip maintenance
- Duluth sales tax shot down in Legislature
- FBI: Stolen 'Wizard of Oz' ruby slippers finally recovered
- Feds end mining exploration ban near BWCAW
- Polymet copper mine clears major hurdle with state permits
- Duluth voters say yes to smaller class sizes by approving two of three tax referendums
- Grain elevator fire in Superior causes $2.5 million in damage
- 4 family members die in Apostle Islands capsizing
- Duluth restricts menthol, flavored tobacco sales
- Essentia's plans to reshape Duluth's medical district, encourage $1 billion in investment
- St. Louis County revises downtown assessments after "inappropriately high estimated market values"
A look back: Top stories of 2017
• Battlefront: Line 3
• Lake Superior storm causes major damage
• Franken, Keillor and the #MeToo conversation
• UMD student killed as gun violence surges
• Deadly waters in Duluth
• Iron mining rebounds, proposed projects advance
• Local opioid efforts draw state, federal attention
• Duluth voters support sales tax for streets
• New U.S. Highway 53 bridge opens
• Duluth school district's financial woes grow