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The top stories of 2017: Pipeline protests, wicked weather, #MeToo conversation lead this year’s list

Opponents of the proposed replacement of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline demonstrate outside the hearing room before the start of the evening session of the Oct. 18 public hearing at the DECC. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com1 / 3
Duluth Mayor Emily Larson speaks during a city news conference on Ideal Street in Duluth Heights in August to announce a plan to improve the condition of Duluth streets. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
An aerial view of storm damage at Brighton Beach in Duluth on Oct. 28, the day after a storm kicked up destructive Lake Superior waves that washed away large sections of the park road. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

Pipeline project protests and progress, a destructive storm on Lake Superior and the #MeToo conversation taking place in Minnesota top the News Tribune's list of the Northland's most notable stories of 2017, as voted on by News Tribune staff.

Here's a look back at what made news in the Northland over the past 12 months:

1. Battlefront: Line 3

Everything got a lot louder for Enbridge in 2017.

The company has met fierce resistance from indigenous and environmental groups disputing the need for the Line 3 replacement pipeline, from formal opposition in ongoing permitting proceedings to protests leading to arrests.

It is in a way a continuation of the Dakota Access pipeline battle at Standing Rock in North Dakota, pitting self-described water protectors against one of the largest companies moving oil on the planet.

There has also been organized support for the pipeline and its promise to provide jobs and improve infrastructure.

With an advertised capacity of 760,000 barrels per day bringing Canadian oil to the company's Superior terminal and a $6.5 billion price tag, Enbridge has called the Line 3 replacement its largest project to date.

Yet if this was the region's biggest story of 2017, it will be even bigger in 2018.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is set to decide this summer whether to grant the certificate of need and route permit Enbridge is seeking in order to cross the state with 337 miles of new pipe.

No matter the decision, it won't be the end of the story.

Supporters of Enbridge’s Line 3 replacement listen to a speaker during the Oct. 18 hearing at the DECC. Steve Kuchera / DNT

2. Lake Superior storm causes major damage

A powerful pre-winter storm crashed into the Northland on Oct. 27, bringing heavy snow and strong winds, glazing roads and knocking out power in many areas.

But the storm's biggest impacts may have been along Lake Superior, where northeast winds gusting to more than 60 mph whipped the lake into a rarely-seen frenzy. Already-high water levels on the big lake combined with 20-foot waves to spread damage farther up on shore than most previous storms.

Gov. Mark Dayton later declared the region an official disaster area with the total price tag to clean up along the lake more than $3.5 million. The city of Duluth suffered the worst hit, with more than $2.5 million in damage, including erosion of Park Point sand dunes, destruction of swaths of the Lakewalk and a trashed waterfront at Brighton Beach.

St. Louis County also saw extensive damage to some of its infrastructure along Scenic Highway 61, including many culverts destroyed by wave-whipped rocks and scenic wayside rest areas in danger of crumbling into the lake. The county's bill for lakeside damage likely will reach more than $450,000.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported extensive damage to the McQuade Small Craft Harbor, about $430,000, and the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad and the North Shore Scenic Railroad also incurred damage.

3. Franken, Keillor and the #MeToo conversation

When the New York Times in October published allegations that movie producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed and assaulted women, it opened the floodgates of women coming forward with their own stories and the popularization of the hashtag #MeToo.

Those accused of sexual misconduct this year include comedian Louis C.K., actor Kevin Spacey and "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer. In Minnesota, U.S. Sen. Al Franken and longtime Minnesota Public Radio host Garrison Keillor faced allegations.

After seven women said Franken groped or tried to forcibly kiss them, Franken announced in December that he would resign, effective Jan. 2. Gov. Mark Dayton appointed Lt. Gov. Tina Smith to serve as his replacement until Minnesotans elect a new senator to fill Franken's seat in 2018.

MPR terminated its business relationship with Keillor in November due to what MPR said was "inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him." Keillor had retired last year from "A Prairie Home Companion," but was still producing "The Writer's Almanac," which MPR ceased broadcasting. "A Prairie Home Companion" has now been renamed "Live From Here," hosted by Chris Thile.

And in November, two Minnesota state legislators announced plans to resign amid allegations of sexual harassment.

4. UMD student killed as gun violence surges

An unprecedented stretch of gun violence, culminating with the fatal shooting of a college student, kept Duluth police busy throughout early 2017.

William Grahek, 22, was shot inside his Central Hillside home on Feb. 14, during what authorities described as an attempted robbery of drugs and cash. It was the sixth shooting in Duluth in a span of less than four weeks, but the first to result in a fatality.

The son of a St. Paul police sergeant, Grahek was a University of Minnesota Duluth student, Army reservist and rugby player.

Five suspects were arrested and charged in early March. Three of them are facing potential life sentences after being indicted by a grand jury on first-degree murder charges in August.

With all five now contesting the charges, and no trial dates set, the case figures to linger in the court system for the foreseeable future.

Duluth firefighters battle waves on Lake Superior on Aug. 10 while searching for two people off Park Point. (Clint Austin / DNT)

5. Deadly waters in Duluth

A 10-year-old girl and her father, Lillian and Ryan Fuglie, drowned in Lake Superior amid rip currents off Park Point in August. A few weeks later, 15-year-old Will Schlotec died after jumping into the Deeps at Amity Creek.

It was a heartbreaking summer on the water with a cadre of close calls that prompted authorities to search for better ways to keep Minnesota's most famous resource from claiming more lives.

"It's almost impossible to eliminate the hazard," then-Duluth Assistant Fire Chief Erik Simonson told the News Tribune last summer. "It's just a matter of trying to get the word out to parents and families and kids — being careful, being aware of your surroundings and paying attention."

Schlotec's death prompted a response from fellow Duluth East students to prevent future tragedies at the Deeps. The Fuglies were visiting Duluth from western Wisconsin and came to the beach amid a red-flag warning for rip currents — a warning system that drew scrutiny in the wake of the drownings.

6. Iron mining rebounds, proposed projects advance

Taconite iron ore mining in Minnesota returned to near full production in 2017 after two years of tumult that saw production halted at some plants and hundreds of workers laid off, some for months.

But the waning days of 2017 also brought new hope for three major mining projects proposed for the region:

• The proposed PolyMet copper mine project near Hoyt Lakes submitted its final information for its critical Permit to Mine from the state, and state officials say they expect to release a draft permit in January for public comments. It marks another step forward for what would be the state's first-ever copper-nickel-gold mine. The project still faces a lawsuit over a proposed federal land swap at the site, although a bill has cleared the U.S. House ordering the land swap to continue. If that bill passes the Senate and is signed by President Trump, it would nullify the lawsuit.

• The proposed Twin Metals copper mine near Ely got good news from the U.S. Interior Department last week when the agency reversed a year-old decision to hold back permits from the company. The decision to withhold permits to prospect in the Kawishiwi River area of the Superior National Forest was made under President Obama, with the permits now made available by the Trump administration. The project is still a year or so away from submitting any proposal to mine.

• The half-built Essar Steel Minnesota project in Nashwauk may be revived after it emerged from bankruptcy last week as Mesabi Metallics. Health-care industry billionaire Tom Clarke is promising to revive the all-new taconite mine and processing center and build an iron plant at the site that has been idle for more than two years after India-based Essar walked away.

7. Local opioid efforts draw state, federal attention

The nationwide opioid epidemic — and local efforts to combat it — has continued to make headlines, landing on the News Tribune's annual list for a fourth consecutive year.

Earlier this month, Duluth police reported four overdoses in a single day. They say they've continued to step up enforcement actions, entering into a first-of-its kind partnership that has embedded a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent in the department.

Treatment efforts also have expanded, with the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment this fall opening the region's first opioid withdrawal unit. The Duluth facility has a goal of providing harm-reduction strategies and tapering medications to help ease clients off opioids.

Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who will soon join the U.S. Senate, visited Duluth to tour the facility and hold a roundtable discussion, while U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar's staff also held a series of public hearings across the region.

8. Duluth voters support sales tax for streets

When they hit the polls in November, a resounding 76 percent of Duluth voters cast ballots in support of increasing the local sales tax by a half-percent to pay for city street repairs.

The local referendum was non-binding, but Mayor Emily Larson said she believes it should send a clear message to Minnesota lawmakers that residents are ready to get behind her plan to boost public investment in deteriorating local streets. Any increase in the city sales tax still would require approval by the Minnesota Legislature.

If passed, the half-percent tax is expected to generate about $7 million per year. Larson promoted a sales-tax funding mechanism because it spreads the financial burden to both residents and non-residents doing business in Duluth. In order to raise a comparable sum through property taxes, the city would need to jack up its levy by about 40 percent.

The new U.S. Highway 53 bridge in Virginia is during a September ceremony to mark its completion. Bob King / News Tribune

9. New U.S. Highway 53 bridge opens

An outdoor gala event drew more than 200 people to a causeway at the bottom of Virginia's Rouchleau mine pit in September.

They were there to celebrate the completion of Minnesota's new tallest traffic bridge, which towered over the crowd and was described by many as being "majestic" for the way it stood out as the centerpiece of a $230 million U.S. Highway 53 relocation project between Eveleth and Virginia.

The bridge soared 204 feet above the crowd on two giant piers and was opened to vehicle traffic a couple days after it was christened by a bottle of Riesling. The name of the bridge will be settled by the state Legislature sometime in 2018.

The bridge and relocation was necessitated in 2010, when mining interests informed the Minnesota Department of Transportation it would need to move the road.

Underneath its 1,125-foot span and 80 steel trusses, Lt. Gov. Tina Smith hailed the bridge as a "testament to the strength of the Iron Range."

10. Duluth school district's financial woes grow

The Duluth school district heads into 2018 with a sizable financial problem.

News late in the year came that its bond rating had taken another hit, and its audit for last year's budget showed it was heading into statutory operating debt after falling into a deficit from special education expenses and declining enrollment. (Enrollment has since rebounded.)

Employees were staring down holiday layoffs, saved only by an unexpected enrollment payment from the state that put the district back in the black.

But $2 million in cuts to this year's budget were still needed to be made in December. Positions have gone unfilled, projects were delayed, department and school budgets cut, and a chunk of that shortfall was moved into next year's deficit.

A School Board with three newly-elected members will be tasked with rebuilding a depleted reserve fund that in 2010 was nearly $15 million.

News Tribune reporters Brooks Johnson, John Myers, Lisa Kaczke, Tom Olsen, Peter Passi, Brady Slater and Jana Hollingsworth contributed to this report.

Other stories that made headlines in 2017

  • City of Duluth debates earned sick and safe time ordinance
  • MnDOT highway project disturbs Native American graves
  • Women's march and climate march held after Trump's inauguration
  • UW-Superior announces program suspensions
  • Sunday liquor sales approved in Minnesota
  • House fire in Hibbing claims four lives
  • Essentia dismisses employees, volunteers who don't get flu shots
  • Three incumbents ousted in Duluth municipal, school board elections
  • Minnesota Power plans $700 million natural gas power plant in Superior
  • Duluth Edison shelves high school plans
  • American Birkebeiner ski race canceled due to lack of snow
  • Duluth Business University announces plans to close
  • Rideshare services arrive in Duluth
  • Ongoing concerns about equity between Denfeld and East high schools

Most-read local stories on duluthnewstribune.com in 2017

A look back: Top stories of 2016

  • 1. Severe summer storms
  • 2. Larson's first year as Duluth mayor
  • 3. Dylan wins Nobel Prize
  • 4. Opioid abuse epidemic continues
  • 5. Presidential race visits the Northland
  • 6. Oil pipelines spark controversy
  • 7. City of Duluth, Fond du Lac band reach casino deal
  • 8. Nolan beats Mills in rematch
  • 9. UMD lawsuit developments
  • 10. (tie) Duluth school facilities proposals, debate
  • 10. (tie) Continued economic roller coaster on Iron Range