Work is underway on a massive cleanup project on the St. Louis River in Duluth, removing tons of wood waste from an old sawmill site at Grassy Point and removing flood-dumped sediment at the mouth of Kingsbury Creek.

The efforts will cost $16 million combined, part of the ongoing effort to chip away at legacy pollution problems and habitat loss that has kept the St. Louis River estuary on the list of toxic hotspots across the Great Lakes.

The latest projects, first outlined in the News Tribune in 2017, include removing heaps of wood waste left by two 1890s-era sawmills. The sheer amount of wood piled up at Grassy Point is staggering — an estimated half-million cubic yards — including boards and chunks stacked 16 feet deep in some places. Much like Radio Tower Bay upstream, which was cleaned up in 2015 as part of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the sawmill castoffs at Grassy Point are remarkably intact.

All that wood has ruined the area as fish habitat, to be sure. But it's also a big part of Duluth history, when the city was briefly the lumber capital of the world. In one year alone, 1894, Duluth sawmills produced 343 million board feet of lumber. At Grassy Point, two sawmills built on stilts over the water — the LeSeur and St. Louis lumber companies — turned thousands of white pines that lumberjacks floated down the St. Louis River into millions of boards that helped build the cities of the Midwest. Unfortunately the mills simply dumped their sawdust and waste wood into the river. About 110,000 cubic yards of the wood waste will be removed, the rest will be covered.

A mile and a half upstream, the Kingsbury Bay project will include the removal of 80,000 yards of excess sediment deposited there by Kingsbury Creek over years from upstream erosion; some of it from high on the Duluth hillside along Interstate 35 and some washed into the creek in the July 2012 flash flood. The Kingsbury project, adjacent to the city's Indian Point Campground, will restore coastal wetland habitat, create open water and improve recreation for boaters and anglers. Some of the clean sediment removed from Kingsbury Bay will be reused at Grassy Point to cap areas of wood waste that can’t be removed, creating new land for wildlife habitat.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources says the projects should be wrapped up by September 2021, or earlier if possible. Funding for the $16 million projects comes from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund, the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the St. Louis River/Interlake/Duluth Tar Superfund Site settlement.

The combined Kingsbury-Grassy Point project is the single largest so far in the Twin Ports under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. It's all part of the effort to restore the lower St. Louis River — the headwaters of the Great Lakes and the largest freshwater estuary in North America — to a more natural state.