WLSSD at 40: An environmental guardian

Aerial view of the district's plant in Duluth's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

Long before Duluth was a city, ancestors of the Fond du Lac Band lived at “Nah-Gah-Chi-Wa-Nong,” the place where the water stops. Until reservation boundaries were pushed to their current western location, the Anishinabe gathered at the rich fishing grounds where the St. Louis River pours into Lake Superior.

By the late 1960s, that pristine fishery had become one of the dirtiest rivers in Minnesota, an infamous designation that inspired the formation of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD) 40 years ago.

This anniversary recognizes a long fight to create something unique, with saving the St. Louis River at the top of the agenda. Established in 1971 by state legislation and operational by 1978, the WLSSD was formed as a local unit of state government.

A member of the House of Representatives representing portions of northeastern Minnesota since 1976, Mary Murphy remembers the turmoil that went on before the formation of WLSSD in what is now considered to be a landmark legislative decision.

“Some things were clear. There had to be federal laws like the Clean Water Act to clean up the Great Lakes, commitments from the state to do its part and that we could not use the Great Lakes as a dumping ground, but at the beginning there was lots of conflicts and you were either a villain or not, depending on what side you were on,” she said.

According to Murphy, it was the man who went on to earn the title “Mr. Environment” who was the powerhouse behind securing millions of federal and state dollars to clean up the St. Louis River and Lake Superior, pushed for the formation of WLSSD and had the trust of enough people to get the conflicting sides to reach some level of agreement.

“Willard Munger was strong and had great respect among environmentalists, and he made people believe you could do these things (industry discharge) and still have a cleaner environment,” Murphy said.

Covering 530 square miles, the district runs all the way north to Lakewood, and down to Wrenshall, encompassing the city of Duluth and the many small cities and townships in between. Seventy-five percent of the costs of building the facility came from federal funds, with the rest being made up by state and local funds.

“No one thought about regional government at that time and talk about bringing townships and cities in that didn’t even touch Lake Superior into one governmental unit was just beyond many people’s imagination,” said Murphy.

As nationwide awareness about polluted waterways increased and laws tightened around the topic, Murphy noted opposing views slowly came together.

“People on each side came to respect each other and did not doubt the other was sincere in their passion, despite their contradictory ideas and people’s minds got changed,” Murphy said.

Once the legislation was passed, Murphy explained that those who did not agree with the formation of WLSSD came to realize that it was for the good of all, and for generations to come.

But before WLSSD began its work to protect the water around the Lake, there was little awareness of how far human impact could go before overwhelming the biological system.

“All over the country the use of waterways to take on waste was just considered the price of progress,” Director of Community Relations at WLSSD, Karen Anderson said.

By the time WLSSD was operational, WLSSD Executive Director Marianne Bohren noted there was so much pollution in the river that levels of dissolved oxygen content in the water had dropped too low to support aquatic life. Massive fish kills, surface pollution that obscured the water and an inability to use the river recreationally led to a local outcry during the 1970s.

“At that time, industry effluent and wastewater basically from the entire region went directly into the St. Louis River, and around that same time, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was created and started to notify industries discharging directly into the river that it was no longer allowed,” Bohren said.

In her opinion, without the existence of WLSSD many businesses, including local hospitals and paper plants, might not have survived in the area with the societal and legislative changes that would have forced them to build their own treatment facilities.

By some measures the river recovered quickly, with fish numbers rebounding and the unnatural stench of man-made pollution fading, but WLSSD expanded its mission beyond wastewater treatment.

Garbage disposed on the banks of the river and barrels in the water were addressed through the granting of solid waste authority to WLSSD. Though not a garbage hauler, it became the entity that set the rules for garbage hauling and recycling in the area, and that opened the door to further growth with its recycling, household hazardous waste, food collection and yard to compost programs.

“We’ve really gone a long way to making the St. Louis River and its distribution area into Lake Superior a tourist area. We are really proud of that,” said Bohren.

She said the job isn’t done and keeping such services now considered critical intact will take ongoing commitment and financial support without overburdening local taxpayers, especially as federal funds have continued to diminish over the last two decades.

“It’s very expensive to operate in a way that meets modern treatment limits, and the state needs to make sure there are adequate dollars in the bonding bill to fund the Clean Water Loan Fund and specific project costs,” Bohren said.

As the solid waste authority for the region, WLSSD regulates proper disposal of solid waste and also has a mission to reduce waste sent to landfills. With the banning of yard waste from landfills in the 1990s, WLSSD determined about 14 percent of the solid waste brought to its transfer station from throughout the area was food. Composting programs for food and yard waste became its mission, reducing greenhouse gas emissions from food in landfills.

“Fast forward 15 years and we have a very robust food compost program that regulates all the major generators of pre-consumption or prep food waste to fill in the gaps from commercial waste handlers to create a high quality compost product,” Anderson said.

Wastewater treatment continues to evolve into renewable energy. Once waste solids (sewage sludge) are run through the anaerobic digestion process, a program initiated in 2001, the bio-solids remaining can be used as a fertilizer and as an organic material to enhance depleted soils.

“Mine land reclamation has to be revegetated within two years, and our bio-solids bring nutrients to those sterile basins back into production of hybrid biomass for trees or pasture for grazing,” Anderson explained.

Methane is a byproduct of treating wastewater in the bio-solids process, and since 2002 half of the methane produced is reused to heat the plant during cold months.

All “extra” methane is currently flared off to prevent any damaging release into the atmosphere. However, Bohren says that’s a waste of a precious resource that could be used to make the plant completely energy self-sufficient.

“Our project now is to put our warm weather methane through engine generators to produce electricity that can be captured during the other six months of the year,” said Bohren.

Moving toward with a 100 percent methane recapturing goal, WLSSD’s next step is to build an engine generator that will work on additional waste such as fats, oils and grease. The facility’s leaders hope to begin construction of the engine generator in 2019 for completion in 2020, though that is dependent on a state bonding bill ask.

Looking to the future, Bohren said WLSSD hopes to get to the point of producing more biogas than the facility needs for electricity. At that point, it could compress the gas and use it as a propane-based fuel for vehicles.