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Great Lakes Article:

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 cesspool.

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 been psychological.

``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 well.

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 said.


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 said.

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 sex traits.

Instead of hiding the potential problem, Stepun opened the WLSSD to researchers to trace the source. Those efforts continue today.

``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,'' Stepun said.

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 landfill.

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

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