Minnesota’s Environmental Climate, From Sewage to Citizen Suits

Minnesota’s Environmental Climate, From Sewage to Citizen Suits

by Craig Minowa, Coordinator for the Environmental Association for Great Lakes Education (EAGLE)

Major Sewage Leak Into Lake Superior Tributary

A Gary New-Duluth sewer line leaked around 1 million gallons of raw sewage into U.S. Steel Creek and the St. Louis River last week. The leak went for several days before being noticed by workers from the Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railroad Company. Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) patched the line, which appeared to have been broken from soil settling below the pipe.

John Thomas, a pollution-control specialist with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, said the fact that the site is secluded and the St. Louis River is partially frozen, helps decrease the risk to humans. “It is a problem area,” Thomas said and pointed out that WLSSD and the railroad need to find a way to better stabilize the area and increase monitoring. The leak’s full impact on the environment has yet to be fully assessed.

The truly damaging element here concerns all of the toxic toilet bowl cleaners, laundry detergents, bleaches and other random household chemicals that essentially got flushed directly into the largest tributary of Lake Superior.

Protesting the Aquarium

The world’s largest fresh water aquarium, the Great Lakes Aquarium, situated on the shore of the Duluth Harbor has been under heavy public scrutiny recently. The aquarium has been getting a lot of harsh press lately for allegedly forcing employee Andrew Slade to resign after he wrote a citizen’s letter to the editor in the Duluth News Tribune, discussing the negative environmental impacts of the proposed Arrowhead-Weston powerline. The powerline has received a lot of criticism from area citizens, saying it’s unnecessary, damaging to the environment and will not benefit local people.

MN Power, the main proponent of the powerline and a big funder of the aquarium, is said to have used its corporate muscle to “persuade” the aquarium board to get rid of Slade for writing that letter to the editor.

How Green Are Our MN’s Elected Officials?

The Clean Water Action Alliance completed an analysis of how Minnesota members of the House and Senate cast their ballots on 12 environmental bills in the 1999 – 2000 sessions. Some of it doesn’t look so good.

For example, a bill that would identify and reduce the release of toxic metals into the environment failed by almost a 2 to 1 margin. The House also rejected a bill that would require school administrators to notify parents when pesticides would be applied to the school grounds. And Last March the House decided (62-70) against a bill that would have improved Minnesota’s water quality standards.

City of Duluth Takes Heat From Environmentalists

Recent development decisions by the City of Duluth are leaving many area environmentalists’ heads spinning. In the past year, major decisions have been made by the city’s planning commission and City Council that have caused protest among local citizens and environmentalists.

One recent case involved the proposed development of a golf course and hotel lodge on a large section of old growth forest of Spirit Mountain. A major trout creek runs through the land and ultimately feeds into the Saint Louis River, Lake Superior’s largest tributary.

Although a mandatory EAW was prepared, it was rife with inaccuracies barely addressed issues of pesticide runoff, wetland destruction and loss of old growth forest. One concerned citizen complained at a City Council meeting that her 3rd grade daughter could draw a more accurate map of the land. In addition, land was illegally leased to the developers before approval.

Despite public demand for a more detailed EIS, the city pushed the project forward. Local environmental groups filed a lawsuit against the city, contesting the approval. Although citizens offered donations, one attorney volunteered time, and GLAHNF helped the cause by giving a grant to one of the groups in the lawsuit, the West Skyline Planning and Preservation Alliance, finances are trim compared to the city’s legal team, who is looking to close the books on this as quickly as possible.

Now local citizens’ attention has shifted to a new project that has the potential to threaten Lake Superior’s watershed. Construction of a 30 unit hotel on the Duluth Harbor has been quickly and quietly approved by the Duluth City Council. Residents of the area claim the City is, once again, breaking laws for the sake of development, and developer Carla Blumberg is suing the city to stop construction. According to her attorney, Blumberg’s lawsuit makes four major allegations:

  1. The commission and council approved the water management variance without seeing a final site plan or landscaping plan.
  2. The hotel project didn’t meet the legal definition of “undue hardship” required for a water management variance.
  3. The commission and council should not have allowed the city’s engineering division to approve the motel’s storm water plan.
  4. Vacating part of Minnesota Avenue wasn’t in the public interest and cut off public access to the harbor.

The direction this lawsuit will take is uncertain, but developers are optimistic and plan on having the hotel open by May 1. However this specific case resolves, the overall momentum in this region seems to be with a strong focus on development at any cost. Which leads us to a very important question…

What Does the Next Century Look Like For Northern MN’s Environment?

Northern Minnesota urban sprawl is highlighted in the recent Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) Fall 2000 report. The report discusses the population boom in the Northland and its effects on the environment, focusing on the fact that without a detailed development plan, the future of our region is uncertain. MPCA’s Duluth Regional Office Manager, Suzanne Hanson says inadequate wastewater treatment systems are one of the biggest problems associated with population growth along the North Shore, and she points to the necessity to develop a plan, in regards to these problems. The report goes on to say that “the decisions North Shore communities make in the next 15 years will determine development patterns, environmental quality, and quality of life for the next century.”

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
West Grand Boulevard Collaborative, & Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve.