Landfill improvements won priority over Duluth Depot repairs Tuesday at the St. Louis County Board meeting in Duluth.

The board voted 5-2 to prioritize a $4.5-million request for landfill upgrades in Virginia over $3.825 million being requested for ongoing Depot improvements.

County administration will now file the legislative bonding requests in order of priority. The county would match each of those dollar figures to complete the projects.

Discussion on the topic elicited the board at its worst and best, filled with squabbles and slights along the way to a productive end.

County Administrator Kevin Gray at one point attempted to corral the mood.

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“The asks today aren’t intended to create conflict,” he said.

The St. Louis County Depot. (File / News Tribune)
The St. Louis County Depot. (File / News Tribune)

Commissioner Patrick Boyle, representing eastern Duluth, argued in favor of the Depot, but seemed to vote for board harmony when he joined the greater St. Louis County commissioners in choosing the landfill first.

“Whatever way it goes, I’m not going to lose sleep over it,” Boyle said. “They’re both important projects.”

The board needed to set its bonding wish list in order to suit state Department of Management and Budget data entry protocols for making the requests.

The Depot was last year's priority. In work that is ongoing, the county was awarded $1.5 million in bonding money from the state in 2020 to make improvements to the roof and exterior of the Depot, in addition to sprinkler system and elevator upgrades.

Duluth commissioners wanted to capitalize on that momentum. The rest of the commissioners weren't afraid to let the Depot slip a notch.

“No matter what we put at priority No. 1, we’re going to have the opportunity for whatever ends up as second priority to still have legislative committees come and visit that project as well,” Commissioner Paul McDonald, of Ely, said.

Discussion also featured testimony from Mary Tennis, executive director the St. Louis County Heritage and Arts Center, informally the Depot. She described the flooding in office spaces she encountered when she started work two summers ago.

“It’s really ailing,” Tennis said. “We just had an air handler explode."

The air handler is responsible for mold abatement, and it’s going to cost $6,500 to fix. But the building’s entire heating and cooling system is risky like that, she explained, which is why it’s up for replacement along with electrical and plumbing upgrades.

Commissioner Ashley Grimm called the landfill project the most important of the two, but she cited more available funding sources for the landfill in making the Depot her top priority. Grimm said not looking at funding streams in a strategic way would be worthy of termination in the nonprofit sector from which she came.

“I really see this vote as an opportunity to show we have both the knowledge and will to maximize funding streams and to be the best steward of taxpayers dollars,” she said. “There is no doubt in my mind that the landfill project is the more important project, but thinking about this around a fiscal lens, we have an opportunity to give both projects a good shot.”

Administration confirmed that clean water improvement dollars available in the county's unspent $54 million from American Rescue Plan Act funds could be an alternative source of funding for the county landfill.

Commissioner Keith Nelson, of Virginia, noted the Depot had future funding streams, too. Particularly if the $550 million Northern Lights Express passenger rail between Duluth and the Twin Cities is approved for federal infrastructure funding — a development which would mean millions of dollars spent restoring the Depot to commuter depot status.

"In that bill is a significant amount of money to improve the Depot here in Duluth and change the very nature of what the Depot in Duluth is," Nelson said, of ongoing lobbying locally.

The proposed two-year landfill project would finish in 2024, constructing a control building and three 6-million-gallon aeration/denitrification ponds, a constructed wetland and an ultrafiltration system — all of which which would address new contaminants, such as PFAS, and allow the county to continue to land apply its landfill wastewater, or leachate.

PFAS has found its way into Lake Superior smelt.

“I can’t in good conscience put that above what I see as one of the most significant health concerns I have witnessed in my lifetime,” Nelson said.

The county is evaluating expansion options which could extend the capacity of the Virginia landfill, used by communities throughout northern St. Louis County, for an additional 50 years.

Additionally, the county, through its solid waste and septic subcommittee made up of the four rural-most commissioners, is also negotiating with Waste Management about a future use of an existing landfill site in Canyon, Minnesota, to help solve the regional solid waste disposal dilemma faced with the closure of the Superior landfill within 10 years.