Officials on Wednesday will announce a $10 million infusion of funds to launch what they predict will be the final push to clean up the St. Louis River.
The work will address problems on the lower 39 miles of the river, from the Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet to the estuary that flows into Lake Superior. It is one of 43 sites around the Great lakes that were identified by environmental officials as "areas of concern" in 1987.
Those sites "are all in what we would call the industrial ports that were settled in the Upper Midwest or in central Canada as we migrated west," said Nelson French, supervisor of the Great Lakes-Lake Superior Unit at the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. "And of course we did not have the environmental or regulatory programs that we have today in place at the time these areas were developed. So industries and individuals discharged waste directly into the system."
French described the challenge along the St. Louis River as "essentially, over 100 years of accumulated environmental degradation."
"These are legacy issues that we inherited that we're finally getting around to cleaning up," he said.
French pointed out that considerable efforts have been made since 1987 — specifically, investments in waste water and storm water treatment, as well as habitat acquisition and protection. Thanks in part to those investments, "The fishing is excellent ... The walleye fishing, the musky fishing is excellent."
The plan being introduced on Wednesday address "nine areas, or impairments."
"It's a bold and aggressive plan to restore the river," he said. "It establishes specific, achievable and measurable goals, including significant restoration of fish and wildlife habitat, and cleanup of these historical contaminated sites."
"With the tremendous support coming from public, state and local resources, we're likely to get it done in the next 12 years."
French predicted stable funding for the project, which will cost hundreds of millions of dollars before it is finished. In Congress, he said, Great Lakes cleanup work enjoys bipartisan support. And in Minnesota, funds from the Legacy Amendment are dedicated to habitat preservation through 2034, "so we're confident we will have those local, state resources available to leverage the federal and other resources."
By the project reaches its conclusion, French said, the river will have "zero hotspots. Some of the Superfund sites, where there's been remediation, in some cases it's more effective to leave the contaminants in the system as long as they're not available to the biota. So they will be capped and covered."
"Basically, the area will be safe for human health and environmental protection and restoration," he said.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the river "has a long history of ecological degradation and pollution that continues into the present. Historical discharges resulted in sediments being contaminated with various pollutants, including mercury, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. High levels of contamination were found at the Interlake and U.S. Steel Superfund sites, Newton Creek and Hog Island Inlet, Crawford Creek wetland, and the embayment receiving wastewater discharge from the local sanitation facility. Landfill sites and other point-source dischargers have also contributed to the contamination."