WLSSD's 'conscience' retires
ENVIRONMENT: Joe Stepun was behind countless successful
efforts to clean up the St. Louis River.
By John Myers
Duluth News Tribune
Published May 23, 2005
After 32 years of taking people's waste and trying to
make the best of it, Joe Stepun has retired from the Western
Lake Superior Sanitary District.
He was an instrumental figure over four decades as the
WLSSD was cleaning up household sewage and industrial
waste that once rendered the lower St. Louis River a virtual
Starting as a lab technician, he ended his career this
month as manager of environmental services.
Along the way, he has had a hand in almost every major
step the WLSSD has taken to improve air and water quality
and conserve waste. He has been praised as the ``environmental
conscience'' of the WLSSD. And while Stepun modestly downplays
his role, others disagree.
``Joe had an amazing ability to sit down with the captains
of industry or with the people from Greenpeace and somehow
find common ground with both,'' said Kurt Soderberg, WLSSD
executive director. ``Joe was always pushing us to do
the right thing, not the easy thing.''
A native of Wells in southern Minnesota, Stepun moved
to Duluth in 1971 after serving in Vietnam. He got a job
with the new facility, planning to stay through construction
and startup, then move on.
He liked the job and the area so much he stayed for 32
years. He and his wife Jeanne raised two daughters here,
and Stepun has no plans to move away for retirement.
``I watched that plant go up pipe-by-pipe,'' he said.
``I like to have a challenge, and we've had plenty of
those over the years.''
Biological, political, mechanical and economic hurdles
were abundant as the WLSSD came on line in the 1970s,
said the 59-year-old. But the biggest obstacle may have
``It took a long time to get people to recognize the
St. Louis River as a natural resource again,'' he said.
Stepun knew those efforts had taken hold in 2003 when,
because of a series of unrelated malfunctions, the WLSSD
had several large sewage overflows at pumping stations.
The Twin Ports public reacted with outrage -- exactly
what Stepun was hoping for.
``When we first started in the '70s, there was a lot
of `why bother?' A lot of people thought we were wasting
money on a lost cause, that the St. Louis River was too
polluted to ever clean up,'' Stepun said.
When the WLSSD was formed, the river and harbor smelled
bad, scum floated in the back bays and fish (which some
claim even tasted bad if you dared eat them) weren't reproducing
The problems stemmed from years of poorly treated or
untreated human waste, paper mill effluent and direct
dumping of industrial byproducts. There's still a legacy
of all that pollution, especially in contaminated sediments,
throughout the harbor.
But in recent years, the water is cleaner. Stepun could
look out from the WLSSD plant and see dozens of boats
trolling for trophy-class walleye -- along with local
residents and tourists in canoes, kayaks and pleasure
boats enjoying the vastly improved waterway.
``People don't assume it has to be polluted any more,
and Joe was a big part of that,'' Soderberg said.
``That's probably what I'm most proud of,'' said Stepun,
an avid fisherman.
That transformation of the lower river took 30 years,
cost millions of dollars and required constant readjustment
and refurbishing of the WLSSD system. In recent years,
the plant was upgraded and, for the past few years, there
have been no overflows from the plant.
Over the years, Stepun worked to connect the plant to
sewage pollution hotshots such as Oliver, Fond du Lac,
the near North Shore and even Pike Lake to keep pollution
out of local waters. He also worked closely with industries,
especially paper mills.
``Joe blew the whistle on a lot of people who were ignoring
the law. He was instrumental in getting people hooked
up to and using the system and doing it right,'' Soderberg
Now, under federal orders, the city and WLSSD are fixing
the system of pipes and pumps that gets sewage from our
homes and industry to the treatment plant. The effort
will cost tens of millions of dollars over the next decade
to solve Duluth's ongoing problem of sewage overflows
at manholes and pumping stations after heavy rains.
``There's light at the end of the tunnel,'' said Stepun,
one of the architects of the big fix.
Due to overwhelming public reaction to the 2003 spills,
the WLSSD is spending millions to upgrade pump stations
and $6 million to add electric generators for backup pumping
power. Stepun was among the few early voices within the
WLSSD pushing for the generators.
While they may never be needed, the generators could
prevent big spills caused by electrical malfunctions.
``We could never have justified that cost to our customers
without the public's reaction to the overflows,'' Stepun
Stepun recently served on the advisory team looking at
what's forcing the closure of some harbor and Lake Superior
beaches because of high bacteria levels. He pressed hard
for money for scientific studies to find the source of
bacteria, even if that might mean the WLSSD was at fault.
``His goal from the start was to fix the problem. He's
the one who got testing going along the river, where our
program couldn't test, and they didn't have to do that,''
said Heidi Bauman, Lake Superior Beach Monitoring Program
coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
``Joe also got the monitoring in the urban streams in
Duluth to find where the pipes were leaking in or just
flowing in. That's not even the WLSSD's responsibility,
but Joe knew it needed to be done.''
Stepun was often the WLSSD's face at state, regional,
national and international events and efforts, including
the Lake Superior Binational Forum. He was one of the
first to support the Lake Superior zero-discharge goal
for the worst toxic chemicals -- for which he was severely
chided by his peers at other Great Lakes sewage plants.
``They thought we were setting up false expectations.
But I felt we had to try,'' Stepun said.
A decade before the discussion on endocrine disrupters
drew much attention, Stepun was raising the issue of how
chemicals in wastewater may be causing problems in living
creatures. Scientists now say those chemicals are mimicking
hormones, for example, leaving some male fish with female
Instead of hiding the potential problem, Stepun opened
the WLSSD to researchers to trace the source. Those efforts
``Joe was very open and welcoming to what we were trying
to do. He's been very proactive on this issue,'' said
Deb Swackhamer, University of Minnesota scientist studying
estrogens in sewage water. ``He wanted to make sure that
scientists had access to the plant and to him, and that
his plant had access to science.''
It's those hormone-disrupting chemicals that cause Stepun
concern into the future, especially from the explosion
in pharmaceutical use in the U.S.
``Look at the huge increase in (prescription) drugs that
people are using now. We're finding out that a lot of
those are passing through people and into the (sewage
treatment) system that isn't designed to deal with them,''
Recently, Stepun helped oversee the WLSSD's major transformation
from burning a combined mix of garbage and sewage sludge
to spreading treated sludge on Northland farm fields and
tree farms as fertilizer. Local garbage goes to a Wisconsin
While there are still complaints over the use of human
and industrial waste on agriculture fields, Stepun said
it's the best way to re-use the material. Incinerators,
he said, weren't the answer here.
``The incinerator worked. Our emissions were really very
low,'' Stepun noted. ``But recycling this stuff is the
best way to go. It doesn't make sense to burn something
that has this much beneficial use.''
JOHN MYERS covers the environment, natural resources
and general news. He can be reached at (218) 723-5344
or at email@example.com.