More than 100 years of unregulated development and industrial practices led to the legacy problems in the St. Louis River Area of Concern (SLRAOC). Once the SLRAOC was established, it took about 25 years for project stakeholders to plan the restoration and remediation work. The two and a half decades of planning is documented in a remedial action plan, which describes:
- applicable beneficial use impairments (BUIs) and what it will take to reverse them.
- actions needed to restore lost habitat and clean up contaminated sediments.
- agencies leading each action.
- target completion dates for each action and removal of BUI designations.
Restoration and remediation projects began in earnest when the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funding became available in 2010.
The remedial action plan is updated annually to reflect accomplishments, improved scientific understanding, and the changes to remaining activities and timelines. Many factors influence how long it takes to complete restoration and remediation projects, such as the complexity of the problem and its potential solutions, the cooperation of adjacent landowners, negotiations with voluntary private partners, the availability of federal and local funding, contractor and agency capacity, and weather.
Restoration and remediation work
The remedial action plan describes additional tasks needed to address the remaining BUIs:
- beach closings and body contact restrictions
- fish consumption advisories
- degradation of benthos
- restrictions on dredging
- loss of fish and wildlife habitat
Much of this additional work can’t proceed until after the restoration and remediation projects are complete. Each habitat project restores a different combination of lost habitat types. Remediation projects contain or remove contaminants in the river-bottom sediment and keep them from affecting fish and potential dredged material.
The projects will be monitored and maintained after completion to ensure project goals are sustained.
The process to choose a remedy and start project construction is lengthy. Several regulatory steps are required, including searching for potential responsible parties, archeological studies, environmental reviews, state and federal permits, and historic resources reviews, which include consultations with state and tribal resource managers. Other project steps include:
- approval by a federal technical review committee led by U.S. EPA
- negotiating a project agreement with U.S. EPA
- completing design plans and specifications
- obtaining bids for construction projects
The process takes between four and ten years; actual construction can take from three months to three years. After construction, the warranty and establishment phase takes another one to three years, followed by site closure steps and long-term monitoring and maintenance by the MPCA.
Of the 80 "management actions" called for in the remedial action plan:
|7||No further action needed|
|10||Remediation projects in progress|
|8||Restoration projects in progress|
|11||Other actions (studies, tracking, planning, data management, etc.) in progress|
(as of March 2023)
The U.S. EPA has approved the removal of four of the BUIs after the targets were met:
- degraded aesthetics (removed 2014)
- fish tumors and other deformities (removed 2019)
- excessive loading of sediments and nutrients (removed 2020)
- degraded fish and wildlife populations (removed 2023)
Project stakeholders need a great deal of data to make science-based decisions about what work will most effectively remove the BUIs in the St. Louis River AOC. The data collected, which accurately represents the physical, chemical, and biological conditions in the estuary, goes through a quality assurance/quality control review process to prevent errors. It's stored in state and federal databases, so it's available to scientists and project managers. The data is also available to the public in two platforms:
- Great Lakes DIVER (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
- St. Louis River Area of Concern sediment contaminant data – Sediment characteristics, water depth, contamination locations, vegetation, aquatic insect populations, and more.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Great Lakes Region
- U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Detroit District — The USACE provides significant technical, planning, and engineering assistance to the AOC. They prepare the designs, plans, and specifications for Minnesota's contaminated sediment projects and, in some cases, also provide construction oversight.
- U.S. Environment Protection Agency, Great Lakes National Program Office and Great Lakes Toxicology and Ecology Division — The USEPA coordinates all federal aspects of the AOC Program, administering the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Funds, providing planning and technical assistance, leading research efforts, and, in some cases, providing construction oversight.
- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Minnesota Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office
- U.S. Geological Survey, Upper Midwest Water Science Center
When it overlaps with their programs and interests, other parties become involved in the AOC work, including: state and local agencies, nonprofits, businesses, adjacent landowners, and interested citizens. Some organizations that take an active part in our work:
- City of Duluth
- City of Superior
- Douglas County, WI
- Duluth Seaway Port Authority
- Duluth-Superior Metropolitan Interstate Council and Harbor Technical Advisory Committee
- Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve
- Minnesota Department of Health
- Minnesota Land Trust
- Sea Grant-Minnesota
- Sea Grant-Wisconsin
- St. Louis County, MN
- University of Minnesota-Duluth
- University of Minnesota-Natural Resources Research Institute
- University of Wisconsin-Superior
- Western Lake Superior Sanitary District
- Wisconsin Landmark Conservancy
St. Louis River AOC funding
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) funds up to 65 percent of contaminated sediment projects, under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, and up to 100% of habitat restoration projects. The estimated GLRI funding needed to complete Minnesota's contaminated sediment and habitat restoration projects is $195.2 million. The EPA administers the funding, but the partners listed above assist in implementing the awards.
This federal funding is in addition to nearly $272 million from non-federal sources, for a total project investment approaching $467 million. The non-federal funding includes $24.6 million in state bonds, $19.8 million from the Clean Water Land and Legacy funds, $192.2 million from private parties, and $35.2 million from other sources.
Other federal funding sources:
- The Army Corps of Engineers' Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund is used for routine maintenance of navigation channels. The collection and placement of dredged material in the AOC is paid for from this fund.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Great Lakes Coastal Program and Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Restoration Act
In Minnesota, the largest three sources of state funding have been the Minnesota state bond fund, the Clean Water Fund, and the Outdoor Heritage Fund. The Clean Water Fund and Outdoor Heritage Fund were created by the Minnesota Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment and funded with sales tax revenues.
Providers of additional funding:
- City of Duluth (bond funds)
- Duluth Seaway Port Authority
- Minnesota Department of Transportation (Port Development Assistance Program)
- Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
- National Fish and Wildlife Foundation
- Natural Resources Damages Assessment Trust
- St. Louis River Federal Energy Regulatory Commission
- Private sources (e.g., U.S. Steel for the Spirit Lake project and Pier B for the Slip 2 project)
- U.S. Department of Transportation (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery fund)