The sawmills that buzzed away along the St. Louis River in Duluth are long gone, but the debris they left beneath the surface is still there, spoiling the habitat for fish and other aquatic life.
An estimated 41,000 tons of sawmill waste - including sawdust and wood slabs - still covers the bottom, intact even after a century under water and ice. In some places, test borings showed debris is packed 8 feet thick in what's now called Radio Tower Bay, and that all that debris is preventing fish and other species from reclaiming the 45-acre bay.
A cleanup is scheduled to begin this month, the Duluth News Tribune reported Monday. It's part of a 20-year effort to clean up the lower St. Louis River, which flows into Lake Superior. Federal and state funding is in place to remove 460 pilings weighing some 100 tons, using giant equipment while the upper Duluth-Superior harbor is covered in ice.
The ecological restoration, which will be done by Duluth-based Marine Tech, is being headed by the nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust under the direction of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. About $665,000 in federal money is coming through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Combined with funding from the state, the project will total $898,000.
"It's a big area that is basically unusable for fish and aquatic species," said Julene Boe, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance, which is handling public outreach for the project. "We're finally getting around to cleaning it out."
Phase II of the project, which would remove the debris and excess sediment that's built up in what was once known as Cedar Yard Bay, could happen as early as 2013 if additional funding is approved.
The goal is to restore the kind of shallow water habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species that dominated the lower St. Louis River estuary before the Twin Ports became industrialized.
Biologists say the bay could become a "perfect" nursery for young walleyes, lake sturgeon and longnose suckers - three native species that spawn a few miles farther upstream. It could also be a key area for muskellunge, smallmouth bass, northern pike, black crappies and bluegills.
John Lindgren, the DNR's St. Louis River restoration program coordinator, has asked the state's Outdoor Heritage Council to pump another $3.7 million into harbor area restoration, including another $750,000 to finish the Radio Tower Bay project for fiscal 2013. Local groups have applied for additional federal Great Lakes cleanup money.
The St. Louis River Restoration Initiative - a coalition of state, federal and nonprofit agencies - hopes to restore more than 1,400 acres on the lower river during the next 20 years.
St. Louis River Alliance fact sheet on Restoring Radio Tower Bay
Information from: Duluth News Tribune
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)