Spirit Lake is now safe for swimming

Safe to swim: Spirit Lake renovation complete

After years of restoration efforts, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency says Spirit Lake is now safe for swimming and other recreational activities.

Located near the site of the former U.S. Steel Duluth Works Plant, Spirit Lake has a history of pollution. For decades, residents of Morgan Park have avoided the contaminated water. 

“I was born and raised in western Duluth, and we frequent this area by boat. And prior to the Clean Water Act, we didn’t really come out here that much,” said Mike Casey. “There’s stories of foam on the water, you don’t see that at all anymore. It’s still a sediment river, so it has a tinge to it. But the odor is what you would notice the most.”

Casey said that the river was treated as a “sewage pipeline” and that the site had a “stigma” on the western side of Duluth.

“A lot of people lived and worked here because of the US Steel site, but it also carried that legacy of pollution, and it’s stuck around for a long time. So this is like really an uplifting time for western side of Duluth to come out here and see that it’s really changed,” said Casey.

Dozens gathered at a trailhead near the Morgan Park Community Center on Wednesday for an important announcement: Spirit Lake no longer needs to be avoided. 

“Right now we’re at the state where the MPCA and Minnesota Department of Health are saying, ‘Okay, it’s safe to swim in this water.’ We’ll be making a recommendation. We’ve analyzed it. The Department of Health has analyzed the ecosystem, the water chemistry, the fish, and we’re going to be making a recommendation that we’re going to allow swimming and fishing and wading and utilization, and that will be coming out shortly,” said Minnesota Pollution Control Agency Deputy Commissioner Peter Tester. “It’ll be a wonderful way for the public, who up to this time has been told, ‘Don’t go in the water. Don’t drink the water. Don’t use this,’ to be able to return it back to them. It just doesn’t happen that often.”

Restoring Spirit Lake has taken years and cost over $180 million. Contaminated soil and sediment under the river had to be dredged out and piped over to a yard that put it through a filter treatment system. After a series of dewatering, Tester says the soil was shipped out of state to hazardous waste landfills.This has been the largest remediation and restoration effort in all of the Great Lakes. 

“I mean, the people at the city, the people at the US EPA, DNR, Fond du Lac, the PCA, some of them have had their careers here for six years doing this, and so they were out planning the little plugs of prairie plants into the wetlands here and putting all of that. They were helping with the remediation,” said Tester. “There was a lot of concern, and the community was really supportive. The Morgan Park community, the Duluth community, the neighborhood groups, were instrumental in helping us keep that momentum up and to keep the progress that you can see today, because it’s really remarkable.”

A local group of passionate neighbors known as “Friends of Western Duluth Park and Trails” provided insight and were part of the reason that the Lake Superior Mississippi Railroad remained by Spirit Lake in the final plans. 

“I worked with the group to help show the public that that is worth saving and it is now saved and the train is now using it. So we’re grateful for the Lake Superior Mississippi Railroad to be able to bring those people out and enjoy the river up close if they’re not able to get out and walk,” said Bruce Fehrimger. “That’s my favorite ride of all the trains that I’ve been on, because you’re right at the water, able to just be right there.  No other way can you get that close without almost being in the water.” 

In addition to clearing out contaminated sediment and preserving the train tracks, the project included building a new trail and creating 21 acres of new fill material. 400,000 plants, both aquatic and terrestrial, were grown in nurseries on the site and put into the ecosystem. 

“I’m just grateful to all the agencies that have worked on this and making it possible to clean it up so that we can enjoy this and making it a wonderful gem for Duluth and Northeastern Minnesota,” said Fehrimger.