Cleanup of St. Louis River takes a hit

More than 40 years later, Russ Francisco still remembers the green ooze. And the sores and the ugly rash the glop left on his arm after he helped free a boat run aground in the heavily polluted St. Louis River.

He went to a bunch of doctors and never forgot what a doctor in Morgan Park told him: "'I haven't seen Vietnam jungle rot since I was in Vietnam.'

"He said that's from the junk that's in the river; that's how bad that stuff is. It's gotta get out of there," Francisco, now the owner of Marine General, a fishing, camping and outdoors store, said at a Duluth Area Chamber-sponsored forum about the ongoing efforts to get pollutants out of the St. Louis River.

The good news : An impressive amount of progress has been made since the ooze incident of around 1970.

The bad news : The inability of Minnesota lawmakers to do their job this legislative session has left in jeopardy $43 million from federal sources to continue that progress. The Legislature was asked for $12.7 million for a $73 million, four-year project to clean up 10 hot spots where pollution is especially bad in the river's bottom. The state's investment would make available the additional $43 million in federal funding.

But the state failed to make an investment this year. Last-ditch efforts to pass a bonding bill died when the clock ran out on a session filled with too much party-first and not enough Minnesotans-first.

A special session to pass a bonding bill and perhaps other measures is still a possibility, and some are "stressfully optimistic," as Kris Eilers, executive director of the nonprofit St. Louis River Alliance, stated it.

But this year's failure in St. Paul could be even worse than not getting the $43 million from the feds. Minnesota taxpayers may be tapped for the money instead.

"The state could be responsible for the entire amount because this is a job that needs to get done. We are required to do it still," Eilers said. "The cleanup of the river is of statewide importance because the river stands on its own but it also does run into and is the largest tributary to Lake Superior. … We're going to continue the [cleanup] work regardless. We need to continue. We cannot lose the momentum that we built."

After decades of heavy industry and the unfettered, we-didn't-know-any-better dumping of what turned out to be toxic wastes, the St. Louis River in Duluth was listed with 43 other spots around the Great Lakes as an "area of concern." A cleanup plan with follow-through was ordered. So far about $300 million to $400 million has been spent. A similar amount still needs to be spent, including the current $76 million project to clean up 10 polluted sediment sites.

Already, the clean-up is sparking renewed interest in the river. It's central to Duluth's next-big-thing tourism initiative. New breweries have opened. A distillery is operating. Upstart companies are renting paddleboards and kayaks. New housing is being planned in riverside neighborhoods like Morgan Park.

Duluth's St. Louis River is getting better. That's the good news. But with more progress and more work still needed, the news from St. Paul can't continue to be so bad.