DULUTH – A $75 million effort to remove contaminated sediment from waters near a former U.S. Steel mill was approved Monday night, the latest step in a decadeslong endeavor to clean up the St. Louis River estuary in the western part of the city.
Duluth’s City Council signed off on the agreement that will allow U.S. Steel and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to access shoreline property surrounding the Superfund site so they can remove and cap more than 100 acres of the polluted material.
The city-owned riverfront may get torn up during the project, but once work is finished U.S. Steel and the EPA pledged to fund a restoration that includes a few perks for Duluth, including a 1.4-mile addition to a hiking trail and the conveyance of 44 acres of land that will receive protected status.
Locals and city leaders also lauded the plan as a step toward readying the 500-acre piece of land for future development.
“Completing this phase of work is a very big step toward completing cleanup of the site in its entirety,” said Jim Filby Williams, the city’s director of parks, properties and libraries.
U.S. Steel opened its Duluth Works site, a steel mill and coking operation, in 1915. The plant fueled a westward expansion of the city and spurred the creation of entirely new neighborhoods, like Morgan Park and Gary, for those employed by the Pittsburgh-based producer.
The company had more than 5,000 Duluth workers at its peak during World War II. But by the 1970s, jobs had been slashed and new pollution regulations would have required costly updates. The plant closed in 1981.
Bill Majewski, who moved to the Morgan Park neighborhood 48 years ago, said he remembers when locals disparaged the dirty river on the west side of town. But not long after U.S. Steel shut down its Duluth operations, people were swimming and fishing in the body of water again thanks to the federal restrictions on industrial pollution.
“Within a few years, what wasn’t sediment was gone,” he said. The trickier work is digging up the contaminants that seeped into the riverbed.
Near the former steel plant, those involved with the cleanup plan to dredge 700,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment that will be brought to on-site disposal facilities. Engineers will also layer clean gravel or sand over more than 100 acres of the material currently under water.
Most of the work will take place in Spirit Lake, part of the river estuary near the U.S. Steel site. Project officials are waiting for a permit from the Army Corps of Engineers and finalizing construction contracts, but a U.S. Steel spokesperson said the group intends to launch cleanup efforts this fall.
The project, which will be jointly funded by U.S. Steel and the EPA, will take at least two or three years to finish. Completion will also mean the restoration of the Lake Superior & Mississippi Railroad, a scenic train route that runs through the U.S. Steel site.
Mike Casey, president of the Friends of Western Duluth Parks and Trails, said he’s appreciative of the various partners working on the project. The addition to Waabizheshikana, formerly known as the Western Waterfront Trail, helps bring the riverfront path closer to the unbroken 10-mile amenity the city envisions.
“Akin to the Lakewalk for those who want to venture further out west,” Casey said.
Trail signs funded by the project will educate passersby about the area’s Indigenous history and ecological significance. For years, West Duluth was stuck with a sort of “stigma” from its industrial past, Casey said. Now he hopes the Spirit Lake project will build upon the decades of work done to clean up and show off the St. Louis River corridor.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said. “If we keep it that way, it might be an attraction for many.”