Duluth, WLSSD Sewage Runoff Consent Decree Terminated

Repair Work Completed Nearly Two Years Ahead of Deadline

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Duluth and WLSSD are no longer facing the threat of heavy federal fines after completing more than $140 million in infrastructure work since 2009. 

Officials from the City of Duluth and Western Lake Superior Sanitary District  held a joint press conference on the edge of Lake Superior to announce the termination of a 2009 Consent Decree. 

Duluth Mayor Don Ness and WLSSD Executive Director Jack Ezell both haled the works completion as a major event in Duluth’s history. 

“From the very moment that Duluth was settled we’ve had untreated sewage entering into Lake Superior,” Ness said, Wednesday. 

Ness added, “In 2001 alone we had 8.1 million gallons of untreated sewage water that entered into Lake Superior and the St. Louis River.  That was an embarrassment to our community.”

Prior to 2010 rain storms were overloading the storm and sanitary sewer systems.

Ground water and runoff would would flood the sanitary sewer causing raw sewage to escape the system through manholes and other exit points.

The untreated sewage water would then run into the storm sewer and be dumped into Lake Superior and the river. 

In 2002, 18 different points in the storm sewer system were designated as chronic sewage overflow points.

In 2003, the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Justice and State of Minnesota began pressuring the city and WLSSD to eliminate the overflow. 

After six years of work and negotiations, the two sides agreed that the sewage runoff would be ended by January 1, 2017 or Duluth and WLSSD would be held civilly liable.

Duluth and WLSSD were ordered to pay a $200,000 civil penalty to the state of Minnesota following the 2009 ruling.

The ruling also stipulated that the two entities would share responsibility for paying fines if they did not comply with the consent decree.

Those fines ranged from $500 to $8,000 a day.

The sewage overflow incident in Duluth occurred more than four years ago on November 27, 2010.

Duluth was not penalized for overflows during the flood of 2012, because it was declared a “force majeure event” under the consent decree.

A “force majeure event” is defined in the decree as:

Any event beyond the control of Duluth and/or WLSSD…that delays or prevents the performance of any obligation under this Consent Decree, despite Duluth’s and/or WLSSD’s best efforts to fulfill the obligation.

To comply with the order, the city built five storage tanks, and replaced nearly 31 miles of sewer. 

The city is also inspecting all 28,000 homes to determine if they will require a sump pump. 

According to Jim Benning, director of public works and utilities for the City of Duluth, homes that do require pumps can apply for grants to cover the cost of a pump.

Officials said the city took out multiple bonds to pay for the repairs.

Those bonds are being repaid by the Clean Water surcharge on residents water bills.

That charge was initially $9.50 in 2009; it is now $5.38.

Now that the work is complete, those surcharges should be eliminated from all residents’ bills by 2028.  

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