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Cleanup of U.S. Steel site could disrupt or end sightseeing train in Duluth

DULUTH, Minn. -- The pending Superfund cleanup of the former U.S. Steel site in Duluth's Morgan Park neighborhood threatens to derail the the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad's operations temporarily and perhaps even end them forever.

Back in service
The Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad pulls out of West Duluth in June 2013 on its first trip since before the June 2012 floods. (Steve Kuchera / Forum News Service)
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DULUTH, Minn. -- The pending Superfund cleanup of the former U.S. Steel site in Duluth’s Morgan Park neighborhood threatens to derail the the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad’s operations temporarily and perhaps even end them forever.

The LS&M is a volunteer-run nonprofit organization that takes sightseers along a riverfront route from West Duluth to Gary-New Duluth and the Oliver Bridge. It is one of two excursion rail services operating in the city, not to be confused with the North Shore Scenic Railroad based at the Depot in downtown Duluth.

Often overshadowed by its northern competitor, the LS&M Railroad remains a relatively undiscovered local treasure, according to Brad Massengill, president of the operation.

Massengill said 84 percent to 90 percent of LS&M’s riders come from communities other than Duluth.

“There are people in the Duluth area that don’t know we exist, and we’ve been there 35 years - 10 years longer than the other railroad, but downtown’s where all the action is,” he said.


Massive cleanup

Work on the U.S. Steel site probably won’t begin until this fall at the earliest, but Susan Johnson, project manager for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said it will necessitate the removal of tracks for a period of two to three years.

The cleanup site includes about 500 acres of land and 100 acres of contaminated waters, mostly in the St. Louis River. The MPCA is concerned about sediments that contain heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, largely a byproduct of coal being converted to coke on the site for many years.

The U.S. Steel Duluth Works mill operated from 1916-81 producing coke, iron and steel. It was one of the city’s largest employers, producing as many as 715,000 tons of steel per year at its peak during World War II.

Based on a preliminary analysis, Johnson estimates that the now-abandoned site contains about 1.7 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments. She said the size of the project dwarfs the recent cleanup at nearby Stryker Bay, where about 600,000 cubic yards of polluted material was found.

Some of the materials probably will be dredged and removed, while others probably will be capped on site, Johnson said.

The MPCA is exploring four cleanup options that range in estimated cost from $62 million to $80 million.

The Environmental Protection Agency probably will pick up a little more than half the tab, but U.S. Steel will be expected to pay the remainder, Johnson said.


A successful cleanup could open new opportunities for economic development on the long-fallow site, greatly reduce possible public health risks and make the riverfront more accessible, said Jim Filby Williams, director of public administration for the city of Duluth.

“The most important thing for this community and for the neighborhoods surrounding U.S. Steel is for all of us to unite behind the goal advancing the cleanup of that site,” he said.

Massengill apparently has made his peace with the temporary disruption of LS&M operations, saying: “We’re not opposed to the cleanup at all. It’s got to be done.”

What concerns him more are the long-term prospects for the railroad.

“They’re going to tear the tracks out, which they need to do to clean up the mess. But are they going to put the tracks back for us?” he asked. “If they don’t, that’s the end of our little railroad, because we’ll only be able to go for a mile, and that’s not much of a ride for tourists.”

Competing interests

Although LS&M operates the train service on tracks running through the former U.S. Steel site, the corridor and rails it uses actually belong to the city of Duluth.

“The city has for some time recognized the value of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad to that nascent tourist economy along the river,” Filby Williams said. “We certainly appreciate and admire the volunteers who put in an enormous amount of hard work to make that operation go. For those reasons, the city has given and is currently giving them significant support, including financial support to help defray annual operating costs and, on occasion, capital funding to contribute to the cost of repairing old bridges or what have you.”


This year, the railroad will receive $20,000 - a sliver of the proceeds Duluth expects to garner from its tourism taxes.

Yet Filby Williams pointed to other possible competing uses for the 5-mile-long riverfront rail corridor.

“The City of Duluth’s Trail & Bikeway Plan identifies that area of Duluth as an area underserved by high-quality accessible multiple-use trails, and that council-approved document, vetted by enormous numbers of citizens through many public meetings, recommends the extension of the Western Waterfront Trail in the right of way from Riverside to at least Boy Scout Landing,” he said.

Filby Williams said more public discussion is needed, but he said city administrators look to the plan for guidance and noted that it “nowhere referenced retaining the rail line and emphatically emphasized the value of that space for bike and pedestrian use.”

In portions of the corridor, there may be room to run a recreational trail and railroad tracks side by side, but Filby Williams said the existing rail bed would need to be widened in other areas to accommodate both uses. That probably would be an expensive endeavor, and he said it could run afoul of regulations in sections where it would impact wetlands.

“Whether and where the railroad can resume operations after the cleanup depends on two things,” Filby Williams said. “One is just the practical implications of the selected cleanup scenario. And number two is really the community’s decision about what specific use or combination of uses for this truly unique 5-mile stretch of uninterrupted, publicly owned river frontage will maximize the public benefit.”

As the project begins to take clearer shape, Filby Williams said talks continue.

“We need to negotiate with U.S. Steel to grant them permission to remove the rail line during the cleanup period and then to require them to restore that impacted area to some agreed-upon condition following cleanup,” he said.

Filby Williams added that the city will ask for cash compensation from U.S. Steel and seek public input on how to spend it.

Meanwhile, railroad supporters are left to wait anxiously on the sidelines, said Lynne Harrington Hall, LS&M’s vice president of operations.

“We cannot go to the meetings, because the city of Duluth is representing us,” she said, expressing frustration with the uncertainty facing her nonprofit.

Hoping for the best

Regardless of the city’s long-term plans for the rail corridor, Massengill pledged that he and other volunteers will step up again to offer the service this summer until work at the U.S. Steel site forces them to call it quits.

The railroad’s murky future already is taking a toll, according to Massengill.

“We’re running in the red, so we’re looking for donations from people - anything we can get,” he said. “But how can you get people to contribute when you say, ‘I don’t know that we’ll be here next year’?”

Filby Williams said the community ultimately may need to do a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the merits of using the corridor for bicyclist and pedestrian use versus maintaining a rail operation that serves about 10,000 riders per year.

Massengill contends the true potential of LS&M’s service has yet to be realized, pointing to the integral role it could play as part of Mayor Don Ness’ push to develop tourism along the city’s St. Louis River corridor.

“You’d think it would be a no-brainer,” he said.

“I do believe we have a very pretty ride. We’re not going through town. We go through the country and the islands and the river and the birds. It’s a different ride that lets people see a different side of Duluth. And it would help bring tourists down to Spirit Mountain and the zoo and to the campgrounds and the parks in the area,” Massengill said.

He pointed out that the rail service also provides people with disabilities ready access to the beauty of Duluth’s riverfront, and some of those same individuals might be hard-pressed to reach the area by trail.

Even if the railroad tracks are replaced after the cleanup at the former U.S. Steel site, Filby Williams said it’s not clear that LS&M would be able to sustain itself through disruption of service lasting two to three years.

Massengill acknowledged as much.

“It is a hard question,” he said. “Will I have volunteers two to three years from now to run this operation? Quite frankly, to be honest, I can’t tell you. We’re dedicated. We’re trying to hang on, but some of our members are getting long in the tooth. We’re mainly a bunch of retired people, and the next two to three years we will try to continue to run, but you’re only talking like a mile run, and we don’t expect to have a lot of riders.”

Massengill still contends it would be unwise to rule out LS&M’s feisty survival.

“All I can say is we’ve got a 35-year history of sticking it out and making this thing go,” he said.

Yet these are trying times, according to Massengill.

“We, as a group, love this little railroad and what we do and the history,” he said. “They may look at us like a bunch of old guys playing with their toys. But there’s more to it, because I’ve got to tell you there’s a lot of work that goes into it, and it ain’t play - 70-year-old guys out fixing track on a 90-degree day is not fun.

“So you see us when we’re toot-tooting on the line, but you don’t see us Monday through Friday fixing track like they did in the old days, and those were 20-year-old kids back then. It’s a labor of love, and we just like to give back to the community.”

Filby Williams offered assurances that there will be more time for the community to consider the best course forward after the Superfund cleanup.

“We’re not rushing to a conclusion, because we don’t really have a full picture of U.S. Steel’s and the agencies’ plans for the site,” he said. “But in the meantime, one thing that we’re trying to do is to preserve the community’s opportunity to make a choice about how to use this property, whether it’s for rail or trail, or for rail and trail.”



Related Topics: U.S. STEEL
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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