Ready to retire, Soderberg proud of improvements

For Kurt Soderberg, the low point on the job came in 2003. That's when the executive director of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District felt like walking away from the post he'd held for 12 years. It was 2003 when a series of massive sewage ...

For Kurt Soderberg, the low point on the job came in 2003.

That's when the executive director of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District felt like walking away from the post he'd held for 12 years.

It was 2003 when a series of massive sewage overflows hit the WLSSD and city of Duluth shared sewer system -- at the same time a Great Lakes water-testing program began showing unsafe levels of bacteria that closed several Lake Superior beaches.

Research now shows that it probably wasn't WLSSD effluent that was raising E-coli levels on beaches. But at the time, the public, media and political criticism of the wastewater treatment plant was taking its toll on Soderberg.

"I was stunned at how people who had been supportive of us turned on us ... I felt like we had let people down,'' Soderberg said. "It seemed like all of our planning and effort was suddenly washed away.''


The problems were mostly unrelated -- electrical failures, equipment malfunctions and unusually heavy rainstorms. But they underscored to Soderberg and the public that the city and WLSSD still had miles to go before the problem of sewage overflows gushing into Lake Superior would be solved.

"Kurt took it personally,'' said Dick Holt of Hermantown, who has served on the WLSSD board of directors since 1992. "I never saw him get angry. But you could tell he was down about it all. He truly believed it was his duty to protect the lake.''

A fix emerges

A few months after the 2003 overflows, the Environmental Protection Agency stepped in and ordered the WLSSD and city of Duluth to fix the problems that cause sewage overflows or face huge fines and court orders that could restrict new development.

By then Soderberg had resolved to stay on the job until the issue was settled. WLSSD staff and its board of directors had already ushered the WLSSD toward a capital spending plan that called for millions of dollars to upgrade pump stations, add emergency generators, replace aging pipes, build overflow storage tanks and upgrade plant operations.

Together the WLSSD and City of Duluth will spend more than $130 million over 12 years to solve the overflow problem. The EPA now appears poised to accept the joint WLSSD/city plan to stop overflows sometime in coming weeks.

It's a much better note to leave on than in 2003, Soderberg said. He'll retire at months end with few reservations.

"I think we're on the right track now,'' he said.


Soderberg cites the powerful April 11 blizzard this year that knocked out power across Duluth, including to the wastewater plant and several pump stations along sewer pipelines. In the past, that would have caused millions of gallons of untreated sewage to flow into the environment. But because the WLSSD added emergency backup generators at the plant and pump stations, operations never slowed down.

"During the blizzard we had even longer power outages than in 2003 ... Both the systems and our people responded remarkably well, and we had no spills whatsoever,'' Soderberg said.

Holt said the decision to spend about $6 million on generators that might never be used was difficult. But he said Soderberg's commitment to protecting the environment spurred the board to approve the cost.

Incinerator shut down

Soderberg also was at the helm when the WLSSD, which has unique authority in Minnesota to handle both solid waste and wastewater for the Duluth area, made a sea-change in operations. The district, formed in 1977, had been designed to dispose of sewage sludge by burning it. Starting in the early 1980s, the WLSSD used garbage as the fuel to burn the sludge.

On paper, it seemed a unique solution to two of society's nastiest byproducts. But it was plagued by fires, malfunctions, huge maintenance costs and a major explosion. Moreover, the smokestack was spewing high levels of mercury and other emissions into the air.

The WLSSD also faced lawsuits from garbage companies and a U.S. Supreme Court decision that said governments couldn't force garbage haulers to bring their trash to the plant. Although the WLSSD ultimately won a decision, the court action threatened to take away a steady source of garbage for fuel.

Since 1999, the WLSSD has instead been "cooking'' sewage sludge to remove bacteria. The agency then gives the treated "biosolids'' fertilizer to farmers and reforestation efforts.


And since the WLSSD incinerator was shut down a decade ago, Duluth area garbage has gone to Wisconsin landfills. But Soderberg said his successor, former Potlatch executive Marianne Bohren, likely will deal with a transition toward using garbage as an energy source instead of waste product. He envisions a system to turn garbage into synthetic gas within a few years.

Soderberg said the rising price of keeping wastewater out of the lake and garbage under control will be a critical problem in coming years. He said more help is needed from the state and federal governments to help protect the environment.

"We don't have much choice. We have to make the system work. But the costs are going up, and we're already hearing from customers that'' the cost is too high, he said. "It's really too much burden on our local taxpayers.... Cost containment is going to be a huge issue in the coming years.''

Reduce, re-use, recycle

The WLSSD has been nationally praised for its groundbreaking work to remove mercury from wastewater effluent. That included convincing dentists to install traps on their spit sinks to catch mercury from fillings before it goes down the drain.

Soderberg has been instrumental in building the WLSSD's household hazardous waste collection system, compositing site and food waste recovery as well as early efforts to collect unused prescription drugs that can't be removed from wastewater when they are flushed down the toilet.

"That's one of the most rewarding things, to hear from people how much they appreciate all the [recycling] services we offer,'' Soderberg said. "People are really engaged now in how to get rid of waste and recycle it. We have a nice little system here, and people use it.''

Rosie Loeffler-Kemp, director of the Clean Water Action campaign in Duluth, has been both critical and supportive of Soderberg's efforts over the years. She blasted Soderberg at the time for failing to resolve a labor dispute that led to a bitter strike at the plant in 2002. And Clean Water Action called the WLSSD out in a public meeting in 2003 as questions mounted on overflows.


But she's also praised the WLSSD's continued commitment to solve the sewage overflow problem and the agency's effort to keep environmental protection in the limelight.

Soderberg "has helped to establish the importance of protecting our water quality and has demonstrated that both in the day to day operations of WLSSD and the development of broader public policies to protect'' Lake Superior, Loeffler-Kemp said.

U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar, D-Minn., has worked with Soderberg for years to increase spending for sewage treatment projects, saying the federal government has been derelict in its duty to help pay for keeping resources like Lake Superior clean.

"Kurt has worked tirelessly to leave a legacy of clean water for the next generation. When it comes to eliminating mercury from wastewater treatment systems, he literally wrote the book,'' Oberstar said. "One of Kurt's first jobs was working for the Forest Service in the BWCA, and the rest of his career has reflected a well known rule that every camper knows: Leave the campsite better than you found it. Kurt has certainly done that with Lake Superior."

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