An environmental rescue mission for northern Minnesota’s St. Louis River got a boost Wednesday with a new $16 million funding package to help reverse a century of industrial contamination that left the waterway one of the most polluted sites on the Great Lakes.

At a meeting Wednesday on Spirit Mountain in Duluth, officials jointly announced the latest installment in an effort to cleanse the water, revitalize fish breeding grounds and rid the estuary’s bottoms of junk and toxins left from the pre-regulation era of lumber mills, foundries, paint making, shipping and other industries.

“It’s really a cool time because everything is gelling,” said Diane Desotelle, project coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

Cleanup and restoration of river, considered the headwaters of the Great Lakes, are now scheduled for completion in 2025.

The project was buoyed not only by the surge of money, but by an agreement between Minnesota, Wisconsin and the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation on what needs to be done.

Officially, the goal is to remove the headwaters from a list of 43 “Areas of Concern” around the Great Lakes. The list was created in 1987 by a special pollution-fighting commission that included all Great Lakes states, the U.S. government and provinces of Canada.

In practical terms, success will be measured by eliminating local fish-consumption advisories and beach closings.

Significance across region

The cleanup should also open clogged tributaries to family boating and restore area fish populations, according to Kris Larson, executive director of the nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust, which is helping to sync the work of various agencies. One of the impairments slated for removal is “fish tumors and other deformities.” Targets for cleanup include dioxin in Wisconsin’s Crawford Creek, the one-time site of a mill that produced treated wood.

Larson called the project “one of the most significant efforts for clean water and wildlife habitat not only for Minnesota and Wisconsin, but also for the entire Great Lakes.”

Nelson French, an MPCA supervisor, said all stakeholders have agreed on a complete remedial program that targets a range of sites from the mouth of the Duluth-Superior, Wis., harbor to environmental hot spots that are 10 miles inland by shore.

“Never before have we had full engineering design plans,” French said.

The so-called “Roadmap to Delisting” provides a year-by-year timeline of action and estimates total costs at up to $400 million. The $16 million in new funding announced Wednesday indicates support from a variety of sources including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund and the Minnesota Clean Water Fund.

Timber mills and wharves

French said a key to advancing the project has been forging partnerships with the maritime industry and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has been in charge of dredging channels in the port to accommodate freighters. In a pilot project set to begin next year, for example, sand dredged by the Army Corps will be lowered into deep water near 21st Avenue W. in Duluth to make shallows that could support aquatic plant life. In turn, the plants should attract a chain of fish.

Desotelle said methods will vary. At Radio Tower Bay upstream from the port, for example, crews will extract timber remnants that have blanketed the bottom since sawmill days. Removal of the debris will allow vegetation to grow, drawing fish back into the area, she said.

“You give it a boost in hopes it can come back on its own,” she said.

Many of the cleanup sites within the estuary have poisoned sediment. In some cases, the deposits will be covered and capped by clean material, Desotelle said. In others, it will be removed.

When the first explorers arrived at the St. Louis River, the shorelines were weedy and soft and the river mouth was hard to see. Larson said the area changed abruptly in the late 1880s to accommodate shipping and manufacturing; Soft edges were often replaced by docks and walls. Part of the project, he said, is to restore some shoreline vegetation and open the water to more users.

“We’d like to turn it back to a river community,” he said.

The St. Louis River runs through the Fond du Lac Reservation and into Lake Superior via Duluth and Superior.

The $16 million announced Wednesday includes a $2.2 million grant from the EPA, awarded earlier this summer, that was matched by $1.1 million from the Minnesota Clean Water Fund.

The biggest contribution is $4.13 million from NOAA that would be matched by $2.9 million from the Minnesota Outdoor Heritage Fund.