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Duluth ready to reclaim US Steel site

Duluth City Council could set a massive Morgan Park cleanup into motion.

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Aerial view of the U.S. Steel Superfund site in Morgan Park, along the St. Louis River. (file / News Tribune)
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After years of planning and discussion, the cleanup of the U.S. Steel site in Morgan Park appears to finally be on the verge of beginning.

On Monday, the Duluth City Council will take up three resolutions that signal the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Steel Corp. soon will commence work on the site of the company's former operations, according to Jim Filby Williams, the city's director of parks, properties and libraries.

He called the Spirit Lake sediment remediation project "at once, a big step toward completing the cleanup of the St. Louis River estuary and a big step toward preparing the former U.S. Steel plant site for redevelopment."

At a Thursday night agenda session meeting, Filby Williams told city councilors, "We want to take every opportunity to acknowledge and thank U.S. Steel and our federal, state and tribal partners for literally decades of hard work to reach this point."

The agreements headed to the council would grant access across city-owned land and provides for U.S. Steel to restore riverfront property once the cleanup is completed. That includes the complete restoration of the Lake Superior and Mississippi Railroad line; a 1.4-mile extension of Waabizheshikana , formerly known as the Western Waterfront Trail; and the conveyance of 50 acres of ecologically significant land to be managed as part of the St. Louis River Natural Area.

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Although an exact timeline has not yet been disclosed, work could begin yet this year. The massive project will likely take a few years to complete.

U.S. Steel's Duluth Works operated from 1916 to 1981, producing coke, iron and steel. The facilities left behind a legacy of pollution, and an environmental worksheet issued in 2019 said: "The purpose of the project is to address chemical constituents of concern, primarily polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and associated heavy metals (including lead, copper and zinc), in the Spirit Lake area, and to support the eventual de-listing of the Saint Louis River Area of Concern."

The EPA proposes to remove 770,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments and cap in place about 107 acres of contaminants now covered by water. As proposed, the project also would involve "41 acres of enhanced natural recovery" and more than 100 acres of "habitat enhancement and restoration."

City Councilor Arik Forsman called the project exciting on a number of fronts.

"We may finally have a glimmer of hope," he said, "at redeveloping what is potentially and arguably the largest economic development opportunity in the city of Duluth at the former U.S. Steel plant site."

Noah Schuchman, Duluth's chief administrative officer, thanked Filby Williams for his work on the project, referring to his leadership as "crucial" and calling his contributions to the pending agreements "substantial and important."

Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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