The Big Challenge of Cleaning Up Polluted Waterways

“The St. Louis River is the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior and has a special significance in the region. It is a geographic boundary for Wisconsin and Minnesota, and provides access to Lake Superior which is vital to regional shipping. Development along the waterway during the past 130 years has added to contaminated sediments and caused 73 miles of the St. Louis River to be designated an Area of Concern in the Great Lakes…. Due to decades of uncontrolled pollution before modern pollution laws went into effect, riverbed sediments are contaminated with mercury, dioxins, PCBs, PAHs, and other toxins.” Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
“The St. Louis River AOC is one of the 31 U.S. based Area of Concern (AOC) across the Great Lakes created under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. Draining 3,634 square miles of watershed and encompassing a 1,020 sq. mi. area, the St. Louis River is the second largest U.S. based AOC.” Environmental Protection Agency
Can you imagine living by a body of water into which raw sewage and industrial contaminants are draining? Before there were wastewater treatment plants and environmental regulations for industry, that is precisely what was happening to people living near the St. Louis River estuary, and elsewhere around the Great Lakes region and the country. Since the enactment of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s, the challenge for the St. Louis River region and other contaminated sites has been both how to clean up that legacy pollution, and also how to ensure a healthy environment moving forward, while also allowing for industry and economic development near the water.
Though the health of the St. Louis River region has come a long ways, thanks to the combined efforts of government agencies, citizen groups, and nonprofits alike, there is still a long ways yet to go before the region can be removed from the “most polluted” list. We met up with a team from the Natural Resources Research Institute (NRRI) at the University of Minnesota Duluth to learn more about the history of this region and efforts that are underway to bring it back to full health. We also talked with Kris Eilers from the St. Louis River Alliance, a local nonprofit that began as a citizen’s advisory committee focused on the river’s cleanup.
NRRI has been involved in helping clean up as well as monitor the health of the St. Louis River estuary. Dr. Val Brady, an aquatic ecologist, and her team of Josh Dumke (fish biologist), Holly Wellard-Kelly (aquatic invertebrate and algal identification specialist), Dr. Andrew Bramburger (algal ecologist and paleolimnologist), and Elizabeth Alexson(research staff scientist) took us by small boat out onto the estuary. They demonstrated technologies and techniques used to monitor environmental health in the estuary, as well as how they use sediment core sampling to study environmental conditions from hundreds of years ago. Watch the video story above to learn more about their work.
Kris Eilers from the St. Louis River Alliance then shared with us how a group of concerned citizens became involved in the cleanup of the region, and how they are using citizen science to help protect the river into the future. You can listen in to her audio interview below.

Environmental regulations are often in flux, as different government administrations with varying priorities come into power. There are changes to the Clean Water Act, for example, that the current administration is trying to enact. You can read more about those potential changes in articles such as this one in The Nation.
Climate change, invasive species, and mining are other events impacting the health of the St. Louis River and the Great Lakes. You can check out our video story about the Large Lakes Observatory and the work scientists are doing there around climate change, as well as our interview with Aaron Brown about the history of mining in Minnesota, and its impacts on the state’s water resources.

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