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EPA commits additional funds to clean up Duluth's Spirit Lake

The massive project will involve removing tons of contaminated sediment.

Cleanup at Spirit Lake.
Mark Loomis, an environmental scientist and project manager for the Environmental Protection Agency, talks about the Spirit Lake cleanup Tuesday on the former U.S. Steel site in Morgan Park. A slurry of sediment and water is pumped into the geotube dewatering containers sitting on a watertight liner in the background.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — The site of the former U.S. Steel’s Duluth Works has remained one of the most contaminated industrial sites in the Great Lakes area for years.

But the property, located astride Spirit Lake, also has tremendous potential to become a community asset, according to Debra Shore, a regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Spirit Lake is a gem of the St. Louis estuary, having the most ecological and cultural value to the river system. Over a decade in development, the Spirit Lake cleanup is the largest, most complex project ever conducted under the Great Lakes Legacy Act,” she said at a Tuesday afternoon news conference.

Shore was in town Tuesday to announce EPA plans to invest more than $100 million to address environmentally compromised sites on the St. Louis River. The feds have pledged $81 million to restore Spirit Lake, $25 million to clean up contamination at Munger Landing and another $6.8 million for remediation at Scanlon Reservoir.

Polluted sediment removal in the St. Louis River Estuary at the site has been delayed.

“If things go the way we hope, we may be able to delist the St. Louis River Area of Concern as early as 2027,” Shore said, thanks to funding from a bipartisan federal infrastructure act.

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Cleanup at Spirit Lake.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Regional Administrator Debra Shore talks during the Tuesday news conference announcing $81 million in funding to restore Spirit Lake, $25 million to clean up contamination at Munger Landing and $6.8 million for remediation at Scanlon Reservoir.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Mark Loomis, an environmental scientist and project manager for the EPA, said work at the former U.S. Steel site has been continuing around the clock, with about 100 people on the job during the day and 35-40 workers on the scene overnight. The project started in October 2020, with two phases now completed and a third to continue through 2023.

In all, about 406,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments will be dredged from Spirit Lake, pumped ashore and screened to remove large objects. The slurry is then treated with polymers that cause sediments to precipitate, and then the mix is pumped to large bladders called geotubes that hold the sediments firmly in place, while allowing water to drain away. But all the water must be captured, as well, and fully treated to remove contaminants before it can be returned to Spirit Lake.

The EPA will use most of the $1 billion approved by Congress for "areas of concern," like the St. Louis River estuary.

The geotubes, which are placed in two confined disposal facilities, will then be covered with a root-resistant barrier and soil to be covered with vegetation.

Duluth Works, in operation from 1907 until 1974, played a big role in building and defending the nation, said Duane Holloway, U.S. Steel senior vice president, general counsel and chief compliance officer.

“We made products that turned into infrastructure products that helped this country through many changes and hard times, including World War II and the Cold War,” he said.

“Today, like U.S. Steel, this site is entering into a new chapter, transforming from an impacted Superfund site to an environmentally protected site — one that has portions the public will be able to enjoy once this work is complete,” Holloway said.

Cleanup at Spirit Lake.
A man works on a device filtering debris from the slurry of sediment and water pumped from Spirit Lake, background, into dewatering tubes on land Tuesday.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

He referred to the project as “more than just a cleanup.”

“It’s a demonstration of the value that we place on the communities where we’ve been privileged to operate,” Holloway said.

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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 delisting of the Saint Louis River Area of Concern."

Katrina Kessler, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, praised the joint remediation efforts now under way on the St. Louis River. “Today’s announcement means that we will continue our efforts and make the waters of Duluth safer and clean for generations to come," she said.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson expects the cleaned up site will serve the community on multiple fronts.

“We clearly have a lot of interest on the part of the neighborhood, on the community and on the county, in terms of having good recreational access and connectivity. So, I’m excited about that. But this also really does set the stage for a lot of adjacent development. So, we will be working through what those details look like, as well,” she said.

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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