When Bill Majewski moved to Morgan Park in Duluth in 1965, he was 30 years old and starting a job as a city planner. People told him not to buy a house next to the St. Louis River. U.S. Steel had been dumping all kinds of toxic sludge in it since World War I.
But he couldn't say no to that big beautiful house.
In 1983, Minnesota slapped a Superfund tag on the river, marking it as one of the nation's most toxic waste dumps. U.S. Steel shut down most of its works four years later, leaving behind 1.7 million cubic yards of contaminated land and water.
Signs soon popped up all along the river, warning folks to steer clear. They shouldn't swim, fish, or eat the berries growing on nearby trees because of high levels of mercury and PCBs in the water.
Majewski didn't want to move, but he didn't want to live next to a Superfund site either. He now sits on the board of the St. Louis River Alliance, a citizen group partnering with the pollution control agency's cleanup efforts.
"Today I might have a little different thought process in terms of moving out there in the first place, but at the time the opportunity to live in a larger home that was reasonably priced was important to us," Majewski says.
This fall the U.S. Steel site is finally getting cleaned up. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency hasn't settled on a specific plan though, so it's still unclear how much the EPA and U.S. Steel will pay into the process. Susan Johnson of the pollution control agency says whatever solution the Department of Natural Resources selects might cost up to $80 million.
For Bob Parontau, a Vietnam veteran who grew up in Morgan Park and returned there after his service, the many restrictions on using the river for recreation is more or less the way it's always been. The old families of Morgan Park didn't move there for the beauty of the St. Louis River, he says. They moved to work at U.S. Steel.
Parontau was born near the steel mill in 1946. As a child he took walks along the St. Louis River where the water was a brown murk covered with an oily film. Nothing green grew, he says, yet he and his older brother would sail into the middle of the wasteland to shoot ducks. They ate them from time to time, hoping they were migratory.
"The neighborhood and the community, I always thought was a good place to raise a family," Partontau said. "The neighbors who all lived here had worked in the plant, and they were accountable, responsible people. They weren't rich but they were hard-working."
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is working with the EPA and U.S. Steel on ongoing cleanup. Unlike other companies accused of creating hundreds of acres of dead zones in waters across the country, U.S. Steel has accepted responsibility from the start, and has only gotten more cooperative since the EPA got involved, the pollution control agency says.
As far as Parontau is concerned, the river's gotten a lot better, and boating is a community pastime. The steel mill site doesn't reek as much as it used to, and as long as residents don't actually go into the water, it's not a problem.
An all-dredge solution would carve out hundreds of acres of sediment from the U.S. Steel site and an all-cap solution involving dumping fresh sediment on top of the contaminated river bottom would create new land masses in the middle of the river, Johnson says. Neither one is especially appealing to residents, so the pollution control agency hopes to settle for a combination that wouldn't upend life in Morgan Park.
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