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Great Lakes money to aid hotspot cleanup

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

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More than 100,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment will be removed over the next two years from the St. Louis River estuary near the Munger Landing in Duluth. The boat landing, water access and fishing pier at the site will be closed for the next two summers.
Contributed / St. Louis River Alliance
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DULUTH — The Biden administration on Thursday announced it will use the bulk of $1 billion approved by Congress last fall for Great Lakes restoration efforts, specifically to clean up areas of concern like the St. Louis River estuary in the Twin Ports.

The Environmental Protection Agency said it is prioritizing the pollution hotspots so 22 of the remaining 25 areas of concern on the U.S. side of the Great Lakes can be cleaned up and delisted by 2030.

The $1 billion was earmarked by Congress for Great Lakes work as part of the massive $1 trillion infrastructure bill that passed Congress and was signed into law by the president in November.

Federal funds could help cities deal with lead pipes, tired bridges and increasingly unpredictable weather.

Work has been underway for more than a decade to remediate the St. Louis River estuary area of concern as state and federal agencies, tribes and nonprofit conservation groups join to either remove or contain pollution in bays and slips, restore fish and wildlife habitat and remove contaminated sediment, wood and other debris left behind by a century of heavy industry and municipal waste.

"As traditional industry collapsed in the '60s and '70s and '80s, we began to really noticeably lose population and lose investment in our western neighborhoods, and there were a number of critical leaders among our western Duluth residents and among our elected leaders who saw even in the '70s the hope that restoring the bespoiled river could stimulate the rebirth of this portion of Duluth on a different basis than traditional industry," said Jim Filby Williams, Duluth's director of parks, properties and libraries.

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Even prior to the latest announcement of additional funding, he said the city had seen federal and state officials' growing commitment "to achieve cleanup to higher standards on a tighter timeline."

"So, it's not necessary for them to make grand announcements of specific additional awards for us to note a discernible uptick in progress — and the progress they were making was already impressive," Filby Williams said. He pointed to a number of projects that could be accelerated, including the cleanup of sites such as the former U.S. Steel plant, Spirit Lake, Mud Lake, Perch Lake and at the Munger Landing.

The federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been the major source of funding for those cleanup projects since 2010, noted Melissa Sjolund, area of concern coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

"So, what this influx of money does is it helps reduce the amount of competition between the different areas of concern that are all trying to complete large projects. From our perspective, it means that we may not have to be as strict with our prioritization, and as we get projects ready for construction, we should be better able to get the funding we need to complete them," she said.

“The Great Lakes are a vital economic engine and an irreplaceable environmental wonder, supplying drinking water for more than 40 million people, supporting more than 1.3 million jobs and sustaining life for thousands of species,” Michael Regan, EPA administrator, said in a statement announcing the plan. The money will push “unprecedented progress in our efforts to restore and protect the waters and the communities of the Great Lakes basin.”

The $1 billion is in addition to other federal and state spending for Great Lakes efforts under the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that has included a half-dozen major projects in the Duluth-Superior harbor. Those include a $19 million cleanup of the river just off Munger Landing in western Duluth where work starting this year will remove 121,400 cubic yards — more than 1,200 dump truck loads — of contaminated sediment in the area between Spirit Lake Marina and the south end of the island off from Munger Landing.

The sediments are contaminated with PCBs, dioxins/furans, mercury, PFAS and heavy metals that, in addition to making the area unsafe for human contact, also have led to advisories on not eating fish from the estuary. Children and women who might be pregnant are warned not to eat any large walleyes from the estuary, for example, due to high mercury levels. Research has shown that the river’s unusually high mercury levels in fish come from legacy pollution, not new pollution.

Don Jodrey, director of federal relations at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said his group “is thankful that Congress has recognized the need for this investment. We’re eager to get to work alongside our partners in Minnesota to make progress so that the St. Louis River can once again be a place where current and future Great Lakes residents can enjoy time outdoors without worrying about the effect on their health.”

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Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said the cleanup has helped fuel investment in redevelopment of western Duluth on the shore as well as restore the river ecosystem.

“I would like to thank the EPA for continuing to prioritize the cleanup and restoration needs of the St. Louis River,” Larson said in a statement. “The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative is not only great for the environment, but it has also positively impacted Duluth’s economy with redevelopment opportunities and increased recreational experiences for the public. This funding will continue to increase accessibility along the river and ensure that residents and visitors can enjoy this beautiful place for generations to come.”

Filby Williams said the St. Louis River estuary already has recovered to "an astonishing degree" since the 1960s and 1970s.

"At one point, I think there was very little fish life remaining, except bullheads. Most of the remaining impairments are well on the way to being removed, including body contact, and by association swimming, in just the next few years," he said.

But the St. Louis River's reputation will take longer to restore.

"I think that it is commonplace for the public perceptions of formerly contaminated bodies of water to lag the actual cleanup — for contamination stigma to outlast contamination itself. And I think we're just like any other community that's gone through this," Filby Williams said.

"But the work that the city is doing with our federal, tribal and state partners and our nonprofit partners — reconnecting folks to the river bringing forward successful new residential and commercial developments that focus upon reconnection with the river — is going to close that gap over time. It is working. It's drawing people back to the river," he said.

This story was updated at 4:02 p.m. Feb. 17 with a quote from Melissa Sjolund. It was originally posted at 1:07 p.m. Feb. 17.

John Myers reports on the outdoors, natural resources and the environment for the Duluth News Tribune. You can reach him at jmyers@duluthnews.com.
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