A letter this week signed by St. Louis County’s four rural-most commissioners is calling for immediate action to address solid-waste leachate discharged into Lake Superior. The local authority, meanwhile, defended itself, saying there was no basis for the outburst of concern.

The letter was sent to the Environmental Protection Agency and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. In it, the commissioners call leachate a “clear and present danger” to the lake, and called on the state and federal agencies to take “immediate action” at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District.

“Of particular concern is the Lakewood pump house, which supplies the Duluth municipal water supply and is located just 10.5 miles downstream from the WLSSD discharge site,” said the letter obtained from Commissioner Keith Nelson.

WLSSD was not a recipient of the complaint, and was blindsided by the letter, said Executive Director Marianne Bohren, who received the letter through back channels and said she was “perplexed” why commissioners would skip over WLSSD and go directly to regulatory authorities.

“Our mission is clean water and we take that very seriously,” Bohren told the News Tribune, adding that she was disappointed that concerns from the County Board came without contacting the local agency first. “We all need to work together, and we’re all necessary to keep the water clean.”

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Leachate is a liquid byproduct of compressing landfill waste. The leachate processed at WLSSD is trucked in from landfills throughout the region, some capped and some still active.

The letter cites an annual discharge of nearly 5 million gallons of municipal solid-waste leachate into Lake Superior. Bohren confirmed the figure, calling it 0.04% of the 13.9 billion gallons of effluent treated annually at the Duluth-based plant located on the St. Louis River estuary leading into Lake Superior.

The main entrance Wednesday at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
The main entrance Wednesday at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

The four commissioners say the leachate is laced with contaminants. Primary among their concerns are per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, a human-made chemical with oil and water resistance commonly used in nonstick cookware, fast-food packaging and firefighting foam.

“It’s so egregious we had to say something about it,” said Nelson, who has touched on the issue multiple times during public board work. “My hope is that the letter will get the attention of regulatory agencies and have them examine the current permits WLSSD is operating under and make changes where appropriate.”

By contrast, the St. Louis County landfill in Virginia doesn’t truck its leachate to WLSSD. Instead, it’s spread onto fields adjacent to the landfill as part of a closed-loop system. Fields are harvested for hay, which is then used as ground cover at the landfill.

Nelson described PFAS as a “bad actor” with potentially harmful health impacts that clings to microplastics already known to be found in Lake Superior.

Bohren confirmed that WLSSD does not currently test for PFAS and, thus, doesn’t have data on parts per million. She contested a Nelson claim that leachate is treated simply by dilution.

“WLSSD uses a physical, chemical and biological treatment to remove 95% of regulated contaminants,” she said, calling PFAS an emerging issue nationwide and one that has led to the treatment plant banning firefighting foam from being accepted or sewered. “We don’t have any reason to suspect that we’re elevated (in PFAS) here at WLSSD.”

The MPCA weighed in with a comment from spokesperson Darin Broton: “The MPCA appreciates the issues raised by the St. Louis County Board and looks forward to discussing these in more detail.”

Broton added that the agency would work “to assess monitoring data to address any possible concerns.”

The EPA did not respond to the News Tribune’s request for comment.

Commissioners Nelson, Paul McDonald, Keith Musolf and Board Chair Mike Jugovich all signed the letter, which emanated from the County Board’s solid-waste subcommittee. The County Board’s three Duluth-based commissioners declined to sign the letter. Commissioner Frank Jewell raised the issue during Tuesday’s online County Board meeting based in Duluth.

Jewell called the letter “factually wrong” and an “attack on Duluth,” for the way it charges, in its first sentence, the city with making discharges through WLSSD into Lake Superior. Leachate comes to WLSSD from a variety of locations beyond Duluth, Jewell said.

Covered tanks Wednesday at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)
Covered tanks Wednesday at the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facilities in Duluth. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

“The fact is that (WLSSD) meets state statute and is very tightly watched over,” Jewell said, citing outstanding compliance awards given to the agency each of the previous two years by the MPCA.

The state agency issues a national permit to WLSSD every five years, Bohren said. In a response letter to the county, she said permitting "contains enforceable, parameter-specific numeric limits and monitoring requirements that are based on the U.S. EPA’s and the state of Minnesota’s water quality standards.”

Added Bohren to the News Tribune: “There’s nothing unique about PFAS and what we’re doing at WLSSD compared to anywhere else in the state and nation."

She encouraged commissioners to tour the facility once social distancing measures implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic have subsided.

Bohren concluded her written response to commissioners by saying: “There is no technical or regulatory basis for the concerns expressed in the letter being discussed.”

Meanwhile, Nelson downplayed the idea that the letter was an attack on Duluth. He seemed to have achieved his initial goal of raising the issue.

"I've done my homework," Nelson said. "This is a legitimate concern and it needs to be looked at.”