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Great Lakes Article:

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 river.

"But again, that doesn't excuse it from happening," Soderberg said.

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 River.

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 priority.

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 completely."

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.

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