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Spirit Mountain pipeline work restarts

Following a couple of weeks of intense negotiations between the city of Duluth and a railroad, construction crews are back at work on a new $6.2 million pipeline designed to pull water from the St. Louis River and use it to make snow at the Spiri...

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Carter Carpenter (left), with American Engineering Testing, Inc. and Isaac Bell, apprentice carpenter, form up a footing at the lower pumphouse near Tallus Island Wednesday afternoon. The pump will draw water from the St. Louis River (background) and send it up to Spirit Mountain. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com

Following a couple of weeks of intense negotiations between the city of Duluth and a railroad, construction crews are back at work on a new $6.2 million pipeline designed to pull water from the St. Louis River and use it to make snow at the Spirit Mountain Recreation Area. And there was an air of intensity as hardhatted workers scurried around the waterfront site Wednesday afternoon.

The project had crawled to a halt as problems with a more-than-two-decades-old easement came to light. The easement was to have allowed for the construction of the Western Waterfront Trail, but it turned out that was it granted only on a temporary - maximum 5-year - basis for the route that ultimately materialized years ago.

Until issues with the easement could be resolved, the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway declined to finalize plans for the project, including the sale of land it owned where Spirit Mountain hoped to install a waterfront wellhead and pumping station.

With winter fast approaching, David Montgomery, Duluth's chief administrative officer, came to Spirit Mountain's aid.

If the work couldn't be completed before the 2015-16 season began, Project Manager Randy Anderson figured that Spirit Mountain could be out $600,000 to $700,000, according to contingency plans he developed.

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Right now, the ski hill uses city tap water to make snow. The new snow system would eliminate that expense and would also more than double the capacity, taking it from 2,000 to 2,400 gallons per minute to about 6,000 gallons per minute and dramatically reducing the amount of labor needed to cover ski runs with snow.

Anderson said the cost increase of a delay would represent not only Spirit Mountain's lost savings if it remains on city water this winter but also the increased costs of retaining contractors who would need to agree to yet another season's work.

Montgomery credited BNSF and other involved parties, including Jones Lang LaSalle, the railroad's real estate partner, for their efforts.

"Everybody kind of pulled together and it was a lot of detailed sorting out of the mess that historically had been there. They worked real hard. We worked real hard. And it compressed a process that usually takes eight to 12 weeks into two weeks, and we managed to get all these permits done and all these acquisitions finalized, because we knew we were up against this closing window of weather," he said.

But the effort came at some cost.

"We did pay a couple of fees - like $4,000 or $5,000 - to essentially expedite this process," Montgomery said.

In the big picture, he contends that was money wisely spent.

"We thought that was well worth doing that," he said. "The alternative was hundreds of thousands of dollars."

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Then, there was also the matter of replacing an old temporary easement with a proper long-term easement, an endeavor that cost about $15,000. But Montgomery said this past oversight demanded correction to avoid any future conflicts.

"We now have the deed and the permanent crossing," Montgomery said.

Weather could still be a complication, but Anderson said he remains optimistic the work can be completed by October to allow for pre-ski-season testing and tuning.

"If it's raining too much, we'll look at putting up a tent. If we need to have folks work overtime, we'll look at that, too. Whatever it takes," he said.

Montgomery took encouragement, saying: "We are working against the clock, but the contractors are confident."

"It's a dance, but we think we will get it done," Montgomery said.

Related Topics: SPIRIT MOUNTAIN
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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