WLSSD explains sewage spills
By Chris Hamilton
Duluth News Tribune
Western Lake Superior Sanitary District officials have
repeatedly called this summer's series of sewage spills
and overflows unprecedented and an embarrassment.
And the mea culpas kept coming from WLSSD leadership
Tuesday night as executive director Kurt Soderberg explained
to dozens of local environmentalists why the spills occurred,
as well as the short- and long-term plans to fix them.
"I'm not here to provide an excuse, but to give
a perspective," Soderberg told a crowd of about 95
people at a public forum in the DeWitt-Seitz Building.
The meeting was organized by Clean Water Action and Minnesota
Environmental Partnership after a series of six apparently
unrelated power outages, equipment and design failures
sent more than 6.5 million gallons of untreated sewage
into the local environment since July 6.
Soderberg said a 1-million-gallon spill into the St.
Louis River yields only about 2,800 pounds worth of potent
material, which should not have a serious effect on the
"But again, that doesn't excuse it from happening,"
While the meeting was billed as a possible public venting,
the public's questions were not invective. People asked,
for example, whether it is safe to swim in the St. Louis
However, WLSSD union representatives criticized the district
as too reliant on technology versus more employees.
Greg Eliason, coordinator for the University of Minnesota
Duluth's sea kayak program, said he applauded WLSSD for
improving its public notification system after spills.
"I think my message was to raise public awareness
about how important it is that we keep testing and monitoring
the water for pollutants," Eliason said.
Soderberg said WLSSD expects to spend tens of millions
of dollars in the next decades on upgrades and replacements
within the antiquated and failing system.
But he said local money alone can't pay for the plan
and pressed the public to support a national trust dedicated
to clean-water infrastructure replacement.
U.S. Rep. Jim Oberstar has sponsored such a bill. A forum
organizer read a letter by the Chisholm Democrat expressing
his desire to greatly increase spending on federal clean-water
improvement and regulation programs.
This summer's 6.5 million gallons don't include untreated
sewage that regularly spills out of manholes and drainage
vents when Duluth's sewage system overloads during the
spring thaw or rainstorms.
The city plans to ask the state Legislature in next year's
bonding session for $75 million in infrastructure improvements.
Soderberg said it should be the city's top legislative
Dick Larson, Duluth Public Works director, said the city's
program to encourage installing sump pumps separate from
the city system may soon become mandatory. The program
only applies to buildings with basements constructed before
1977. The grant program helps alleviate the overflows.
And Duluth must meet "zero" sewage overflows
within five years to comply with federal and state standards.
"We are at a turning point," Larson said. "We
do not have enough (voluntary compliance) to reduce it
He said the City Council plans to address the issue in
the coming months.
Heidi Bauman, coordinator for the Minnesota Pollution
Control Agency's new Lake Superior beach program, said
recent beach closings have heightened scrutiny of WLSSD.
Many have blamed more than a dozen beach closings this
summer -- because of high E. coli and fecal coliform levels
-- on the spills.
While Bauman didn't rule out WLSSD as the cause or at
least a contributor, she said the high bacteria levels
also can coincide with bird waste, litter, child diapers
and home septic system leaks.