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Cleanup set to remove St. Louis River debris

DULUTH - The sawmills that buzzed away on the shore of the St. Louis River here are long since gone, but the legacy of debris they left on the bottom of what was called Cedar Yard Bay is still there.

An estimated 41,000 tons of sawmill waste -- sawdust and slabs -- are still covering the bottom, amazingly intact even after a century under water and ice. Some 460 giant wooden pilings from an old railroad bridge also are blocking the river's restoration there.

In some places, test borings showed the debris packed 8 feet thick in what's now called Radio Tower Bay for the antennas planted there.

All that stuff covering the bottom is preventing fish and aquatic habitat from reclaiming the 45-acre sheltered bay just upstream of the Oliver Bridge. But as part of the ongoing federally funded cleanup of Great Lakes environmental trouble spots, work is scheduled to begin later this month to begin the ecological restoration of Radio Tower Bay.

Federal and state funding is in place to remove the 460 pilings (some 100 tons) using giant equipment while the upper harbor is covered in ice.

The effort, which will be done by Duluth-based Marine Tech, is being headed by the nonprofit Minnesota Land Trust under direction of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. The federal money was funded through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and combined with funding from the state, the project will total $898,000.

"It's a big area that is basically unusable for fish and aquatic species," said Julene Boe, executive director of the St. Louis River Alliance that is handling public outreach for the project. "We're finally getting around to cleaning it out."

Phase II of the project, which would remove the debris and excess sediment that's built up in the bay, could happen as early as 2013 if additional funding is approved.

The goal is to restore the kind of shallow water habitat for fish, waterfowl and other species that dominated the lower St. Louis River estuary before the Twin Ports became industrialized.

Fish biologists say the bay could become a "perfect" nursery area for walleye, lake sturgeon and longnose sucker -- three native species that spawn a few miles farther upstream. The bay could become a critical spot for newly spawned fish to grow. It could also be a key area for musky, smallmouth bass, northern pike, black crappie and bluegill.

John Lindgren, the DNR's St. Louis River restoration program coordinator, asked the state's Outdoor Heritage Council to pump another $3.7 million into harbor area restoration, including another $750,000 to finish the Radio Tower Bay project for fiscal 2013 that starts next July. Local groups also have applied for additional federal Great Lakes cleanup money.

The St. Louis River restoration Initiative -- a coalition of state, federal and nonprofit agencies -- hopes to restore more than 1,400 acres on the lower river during the next 20 years.