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Is the St. Louis River better looking yet?

DULUTH -- The time has come to proclaim the St. Louis River estuary as better looking, better smelling and a better place to spend time. Officially, it's more aesthetically pleasing than it was 40 years ago, when raw sewage and industrial waste w...

The surface of the St. Louis River near Fond du Lac catches an abstract reflection of the sun and sky Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)


DULUTH - The time has come to proclaim the St. Louis River estuary as better looking, better smelling and a better place to spend time.

Officially, it’s more aesthetically pleasing than it was 40 years ago, when raw sewage and industrial waste was flowing into the waterway.

That’s what officials on both the Minnesota and Wisconsin sides of the lower St. Louis River say as they officially start the process to remove the Duluth-Superior, Wis., from the list of  43 heavily polluted “Areas of Concern’’ along the Great Lakes.


The lower river and harbor made the infamous Areas of Concern list in 1987 because of nine major problems, including generally nasty aesthetics.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency are leading the effort. The application to have the aesthetic impairment removed will be submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency later this summer.

The effort is aimed at marking progress in the long-running cleanup of a century of pollution and development along the river and harbor, said Matt Steiger, who heads the effort for the Wisconsin DNR. But it’s also a chance to show Congress, state lawmakers and other groups that the money they have spent on cleanup projects has provided some bang for the buck – that results are measurable, Steiger said.

“The river looks better. It doesn’t smell bad. There’s a general public sense that the level of beauty along the river is better now than it was 30 years go,’’ Steger said. “We can document that improvement. And we can explain why it’s better, what projects have occurred, to get us here.”

Those projects include improved municipal wastewater treatment facilities and significant reductions in sewage overflows thanks to major, multimillion-dollar efforts to capture and reduce the amount of rainfall that seeps into the sewage system. Those efforts also include cleanup and containment of polluted hotspots like Striker Bay in Duluth and Superior’s Hog Island Inlet/Newton Creek.

Natural resource officials say the removal of the first beneficial use impairment “marks a critical milestone” in celebrating how far the river has come and how much work has been done to restore it to a healthier condition. They hope to knock one or more impairments off per year, so all nine are removed roughly by 2020, after which the Area of Concern label would be completely removed for Duluth-Superior.

Diane Desotelle, Area of Concern coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said resource managers are walking a fine line by trying to highlight success so far along the river when so many problems – from legacy pollutants to habitat loss – still need to be addressed.

“We want to be able to address each of these impairments and check them off one by one and then be able to celebrate it when we get there,’’ Desotelle said. “Yes, a lot more work needs to be done, absolutely. But it’s important that the public know what work has been done, how much the river has improved.”


After aesthetics is checked off the list, the next effort will target “fish tumors and deformities,” likely by 2016 or sooner. Targets to come later are restricted fish consumption due to mercury and other contaminants, threats to fish and wildlife populations, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, lack of diversity among bottom-dwelling organisms, restrictions on dredging activities due to polluted sediment, decreased water quality due to high nutrient and sediment levels, and high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria that spur beach closures.

“We’re never going to get to complete restoration, to have the river the way it was before the problems started,’’ Desotelle said. “But I’m a glass half-full person. We can try to get it back to a thriving (eco)system. We’re getting there.”

Public comments

Copies of the plan to remove the federal “aesthetic impairment’’ listing for the lower St. Louis River are available at www.pca.state.mn.us . Written comments must be submitted by 4:30 p.m. July 17 to: Matt Steiger, WDNR, 1701 N 4th St., Superior, WI, 54880, or faxed to Steiger at (715) 392-7993. For more information call (715) 395-6904.

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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