Trouble in the Water: Northern Minnesota's St. Louis River comes back to life, but it's still not in the clear

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Listen: St Louis River

As part of MPR's “Trouble in the Water” series, MPR’s Dan Kraker reports on the history of pollution in the St. Louis river in nortern Minnesota, and efforts now to clean it up.

The St. Louis river has undergone a rebirth, of sorts, after decades of languishing under industrial decay. That said, serious concerns remain.

Report is fourth in an eight-part series.

Click links below for other parts of series:

part 1:

part 2:

part 3:

part 5:

part 6:

part 7:

part 8:


2016 MBJA Eric Sevareid Award, award of merit in Series - Large Market Radio category


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SPEAKER: As you probably know, all this month, MPR News is taking a close look at water quality in Minnesota. Today we have a story of devastating pollution and a remarkably successful environmental cleanup, but one that's only half done. Reporter Dan Kraker has our story.

DAN KRAKER: The St. Louis River begins in a shallow lake near the Iron Range and eventually flows into Lake Superior at Duluth. In the 1960s, Gary Bubalo was a kid growing up in the far western side of the city where the St. Louis widens into a huge bay. The river was so polluted, he remembers his mom and other parents saying, whatever you do, don't go near the river. But he says some kids did anyway, and they kind of became untouchables.

GARY BUBALO: They were almost like social outcasts because they recreate-- because they swam in the river.

DAN KRAKER: Bubalo also remembers seeing the big US Steel plant dumping its waste, which he describes as a constant dirty drain running right into the river.

GARY BUBALO: I remember one kid caught a fish once. He came up the hill, and he kind of was showing everybody. And it was like an alien from a planet or something, that somebody actually-- you could actually catch a fish in this thing.

DAN KRAKER: Even decades later, the list of toxins still present in the river is shocking-- PCB, DDT, and two other banned pesticides, dieldrin and toxaphene. But after decades of cleanup, the scene is quite different now from the one Bubalo remembers. The steel plant is gone. The spot where some kids dare to swim is now a campground and ramp where anglers launch boats to fish for walleye and muskie. Others paddle canoes and kayaks among the wooded islands.

The water is so much cleaner that the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and other groups are starting to restore wild rice beds. And after being wiped out by overfishing and pollution more than a half century ago, even lake sturgeon have returned to the St. Louis River.

Last month, researchers with the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources hoisted a 4-foot-long sturgeon out of a water filled metal tub onto a makeshift operating table.

ANNA VARIAN: Their skin is actually really tough, as you can see. While I'm trying to put the scalpel in, I'm having difficulties.

DAN KRAKER: Anna Varian with the Minnesota DNR makes a small incision in the fish. It's a bizarre looking beast, almost like a small shark, with four huge whiskers hanging down from its snout.

ANNA VARIAN: I laugh and say it's a face only a mother could love.

DAN KRAKER: Varian inserts something about the size of a tube of Chapstick into the fish's belly. It's a transmitter that Varian says will help them track its movements. DNR officials started stocking sturgeon in the river back in the 1980s. But it took nearly 30 years for the species to start reproducing naturally. Now, Varian says, they're thriving again.

ANNA VARIAN: 30-some years ago, we had Minnesota and Wisconsin DNR employees handling these fish at a very young age and putting them into the river. And now they're coming back. I'm handling them. It's been a huge success.

DAN KRAKER: The St. Louis River sturgeon represent a victory for environmental policy. The Minnesota DNR and others attribute the fish's rebound to water quality improvements sparked by the Clean Water Act and other regulatory efforts.

After stitching up the sturgeon, Varian slides it back into the water, something that a few decades ago likely would have doomed it. The campaign to restore the river dates back more than half a century to the early 1950s. The late Duluth state representative Willard Munger started pushing for a regional sewage treatment plant to keep untreated waste out of the water. Eventually, state lawmakers approved the idea, but there was no funding until the Clean Water Act passed in 1972. And that freed up more than $100 million to build the facility.

Now, a 75-mile network of sewers delivers 40 million gallons of wastewater a day here to the treatment plant in Duluth from paper mills and cities along the river. The treatment process involves mixing the sewage with oxygen and bacteria that feast on the waste. The plant's environmental program coordinator Sarah Lerohl says the water is cleaned and released in just 8 to 10 hours.

SARAH LEROHL: So if you brushed your teeth last night in this city or anywhere reasonably close, certainly there's fish already out there swimming in your toothbrush water that's been cleaned and gone,

DAN KRAKER: Restoring severely depleted oxygen levels in the river was a top goal when the plant went online in 1978. Jack Ezell, manager of planning and technical services for the sanitary district, says the effect was almost immediate.

JACK EZELL: And to our surprise, by summer of that year, we were already seeing fisheries start to redevelop. People were fishing and taking walleyes out of the river as early as 1979 again.

DAN KRAKER: But there was still a long way to go. Contaminants remained trapped in the sediment. The underwater habitat was destroyed. About a decade after the sewage plant started up, a US water quality pact with Canada listed the St. Louis River estuary as one of 43 Great Lakes areas of concern. And even now, there's still more work to be done.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's Nelson French says they're on target to have the river removed from that list by 2025. But so far, the cleanup has cost between $300 and $400 million. French says plans call for spending another $200 million in the next four years.

NELSON FRENCH: That gives us an idea of what the cost of leaving these legacies can be if you truly want to get them cleaned up. This tells a story of what it means if you don't regulate these materials.

DAN KRAKER: But even with the progress so far, the river is hardly in the clear. Pollutants, including heavy metals and sulfate, could flow into the St. Louis in the future if pollution safeguards at the proposed PolyMet mine fail to work. And some environmentalists say there's a known pollution problem now that's getting overlooked. As the problem of industrial waste has receded, another is taking its place-- mercury.

LEN ANDERSON: We traded one set of devils for another.

DAN KRAKER: Len Anderson is a retired biology teacher who spent many of his 76 years canoeing, fishing, and fighting for the St Louis River.

LEN ANDERSON: Now people are catching game fish. And they taste good, they look good, and they smell good. But they have an insidious load of mercury like we've never seen before.

DAN KRAKER: Mercury pollution is common in Minnesota waters. It's toxic to the nervous system and comes mainly from air emissions, such as those from coal-fired power plants. The state is on track to drastically cut mercury emissions by 2025, but there's a debate about what's causing the extreme fish mercury levels in the St. Louis and several other Minnesota waterways.

Anderson argues the problem in the St. Louis River is mining. He says the industry releases sulfate, a chemical that helps mercury accumulate in fish tissue. The MPCA's Shannon Lotthammer says, yes, it's clear sulfate plays a role.

SHANNON LOTTHAMMER: But the fact that it plays a role doesn't mean that it's the only controlling factor or even that it is the controlling factor because there are other things that play into this process.

DAN KRAKER: Lotthammer says state officials need a better understanding of the process before choosing a strategy to reduce mercury levels. Len Anderson, though, is feeling the press of time.

LEN ANDERSON: I've spent a lot of my lifetime working towards that goal, where my grandchildren will be able to eat the fish again.

DAN KRAKER: Anderson is battling a rare bone marrow disease, and he worries he won't see the day when that goal is accomplished in the St. Louis River. Cruel testimony that lifetimes can pass in the span it takes to clean a body of water. Covering the environment, I'm Dan Kraker, Minnesota Public Radio News, Duluth.


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