Duluth wastewater plant seeks $17.5 million to tackle urgent repairs

State bonding funds will be needed to shore up failing pieces of critical equipment.

Aerial view of a wastewater treatment plant.
An aerial view of the WLSSD and its four secondary clarifiers in the foreground Nov. 16. The one that failed is farthest from the camera. The facility needs at least three secondary clarifiers to operate, and all four are of the same make and vintage.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

DULUTH — A regional wastewater system that serves a 530-square-mile territory is in dire need of extensive and expensive repairs.

The Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, commonly referred to as WLSSD, relies on four secondary clarifiers, where solids precipitate from the wastewater and are removed to allow for further treatment. Each of the cone-shaped, domed vessels is 160 feet in diameter and has a capacity of 2.1 million gallons.

In October, one of those clarifiers suffered a catastrophic failure and had to be taken out of service. Since then, the facility has been able to limp along with its remaining three secondary clarifiers. But inspections of those units revealed similar structural corrosion to that which forced the other unit to be taken down.

Woman gesturing.
AJ Axtell, Western Lake Superior Sanitary District director of community relations, talks Nov. 16 while standing outside the secondary clarifier unit that had recently failed.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

Work has been done to shore up the remaining three units, buying the facility a bit more time. But Marianne Bohren, WLSSD’s executive director, said, “While we’ve made temporary repairs, they are just that — temporary.”

The cost to replace failing collection systems in the clarifiers and make concrete repairs is expected to total about $35 million, and WLSSD is counting on the Minnesota Legislature for half that sum from a bonding bill request.


Assuming that request is fulfilled, WLSSD would borrow the remaining $17.5 million from the Public Facilities Authority, funded by a mix of federal and state dollars. The Authority’s coffers have been depleted this year, however, as it received no state support for the fund due the state Legislature’s failure to pass a bonding bill last year.

Bohren warned that WLSSD will be in trouble if lawmakers are again unable to reach agreement on a bonding bill, noting that Northland legislators have offered strong support for its bonding request.

Jen McEwen.jpg
Jen McEwen

Sen. Jen McEwen, DFL-Duluth, described obtaining funding for the work at WLSSD as "a top priority.”

She said the House has put together a bipartisan bill, but "the old holdup is the Senate Republican caucus. They’re trying to leverage these infrastructure needs for tax cuts that would go disproportionately to wealthier Minnesotans.”

One way or another, McEwen expressed confidence funding for WLSSD will be provided.

The pending arrival of spring only heightens Bohren’s concerns. She explained that the plant needs only three secondary clarifiers to get by most of the time. But during peak periods of operation, which typically occur in the spring, all four units operate.

This winter’s heavy snowfall and the prospect of a rapid melt or spring rain could place a particularly heavy burden on the plant in coming weeks. Bohren remains optimistic WLSSD will meet the challenge, however.

She noted that the facility is in line to receive a platinum award from the National Association of Clean Water Industries for having no discharge violations and operating in perfect compliance performance standards for five straight years. In the event WLSSD’s secondary clarifiers were overburdened, however, she acknowledged some solids that would normally be removed from wastewater could be discharged into the St Louis River.


“It would really be disheartening to lose that string of perfect compliance. And we’re going to be doing everything that we can here to ensure that we don’t lose that, that we are meeting all our permit requirements. But we sure need help from the state to make sure that we’re successful,” she said.

Bohren remains optimistic. “I am so hopeful," she said. "I put a lot of faith in our local representatives, and I know they’re working really hard to make that happen.”

Inside a wastewater treatment plant.
A walkway leads to the center of WLSSD's failed secondary clarifier.
Steve Kuchera / 2022 file / Duluth News Tribune

Even with the benefit of funding, there will be no quick fix for WLSSD. Bohren noted that the lead time for the center well that needs to be replaced in the failed clarifier is 29 weeks from the order date. The same component will need to be replaced in each unit.

Bohren said the work will need to be phased, as well, preferably avoiding periods of peak flow in the spring and fall. So, an extended timeline will be required.

“Because we need to operate and we don’t have backup clarifiers, we’ll need to do them one at a time,” she explained.

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Peter Passi covers city government for the Duluth News Tribune. He joined the paper in April 2000, initially as a business reporter but has worked a number of beats through the years.
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