The city of Duluth is recommending that a scenic railroad line through western Duluth be preserved in its entirety as part of the pending cleanup of the former U.S. Steel mill site on the banks of the St. Louis River.
The recommendation to the Duluth Parks Commission on Wednesday is somewhat of a reversal for Mayor Emily Larson's administration, which earlier had advanced a proposal to shorten the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad and give a portion away for use as part of a recreational trail extension.
The plan presented Wednesday goes with a “trail with rail” solution, calling for a 7-mile extension of the Western Waterfront Trail to be created separately from the popular volunteer-run rail line, the tracks of which the city owns.
The city has three goals for the cleanup project and trail extension, according to Jessica Peterson, Duluth’s parks and recreation manager.
“We continue to hold three key values as our kind of guiding principles,” she said. “Those include maximum access to the riverfront, maximum preservation of the historic rail line and maximum restoration to the river.”
Peterson said the city is continuing to study options for trail alignments and width as well as plans to make the trail extension ADA-compliant.
The plan also calls for the preservation of the Mud Lake causeway, which carries the rail line across to its terminus at the Oliver Bridge. The potential removal of this final segment of the railroad has been the subject of heated public discussion in recent years.
“Internally, we have assessed and weigh those ecological impacts, and we have really worked to balance those with the public input that we've received to date and conversations with our stakeholders,” Peterson said.
U.S. Steel operated its Duluth facility from 1916-81, producing coke, iron and steel. The now-shuttered operations left behind a legacy of pollution.
“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,” according to an environmental assessment worksheet from the city.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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.”
The environmental worksheet calls for the removal of tracks to facilitate the cleanup, but it is explicit in its commitment to restore the rail line.
In July, Jim Filby Williams, Duluth’s director of public administration, told the News Tribune that the city is negotiating the project under the assumption that U.S. Steel is willing to replace the rail line, unless the City Council decides not to restore it.
“So, in the absence of a final decision by the council, we continue to negotiate on the assumption that it will be put back in place,” he said.
The city’s presentation Wednesday to the Parks Commission was merely informational. During the rest of August, city staff will work on solving various feasibility challenges related to the trail extension, Peterson said.
The city will present its draft master plan to the Parks Commission in September for initial review, followed by a two-week public comment period.
After that, any final changes to the plan will be incorporated, and the city will present the final plan to the commission in October for review, Peterson said. If approved, the plan then will move on to the City Council.