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Duffy, Nolan join to celebrate a cleaner river

By John Lundy

Duluth News Tribune

Each is in a battle to keep his job, and they serve in opposite parties in a Congress known for its rancorous bipartisanship.

But as they joined in celebrating a milestone toward cleaning up the St. Louis River estuary and harbor, U.S. Rep. Sean Duffy of Wisconsin and his across-the-bridge colleague, Rick Nolan, were best buddies on Friday.

 “We actually like each other,” Duffy, R-Wausau, said shortly after joking that he was still riding a tricycle the first time Nolan was elected to Congress, in 1974.

That wisecrack drew loud laughter from about 50 people attending a celebratory event in the Paulucci Building, a stone’s throw away from the Duluth harbor.

The occasion was a victory declaration over one of the nine “impairments” that caused the Environmental Protection Agency to list the lower river and harbor as an “area of concern” in 1987.

Twenty-seven years and $450 million later, “degradation of aesthetics” has been crossed off the official to-do list, said Nelson French, the MPCA’s unit supervisor for Lake Superior and the Lower St. Louis River.

The efforts included better municipal wastewater treatment facilities and cleanup of Duluth’s Stryker Bay, as well as Hog Island Inlet and Newton Creek on the Superior side.

The difference is unmistakable, said Nolan, DFL-Crosby.

“These are real, concrete accomplishments,” he said. “They’re good for tourism. They’re good for the quality of our waters.”

It wouldn’t have happened without a bipartisan coalition of Great Lakes members of Congress fighting for the money with which to do it, Nolan said. He credited Duffy with leading the charge to make sure the federal Harbor Trust Fund is used as intended.

“Democratic presidents and Republican presidents have been raiding that fund for years,” Nolan said.

The two politicians were all smiles as they shook hands twice and wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders several times.

Their willingness to work across party lines is something their colleagues should emulate, Duffy said.

“A Democrat and a Republican, probably a Vikings fan and a Packers fan,” Duffy said as Nolan nodded. “You’ve got state and federal governments, local governments all working together to clean up our environment. … It’s amazing what we can do when we actually work together.”

There’s much still to do if the region is to get off the EPA’s list. Addressing fish tumors and other deformities, and loss of fish and wildlife habitat, are among the impairments that remain unresolved.

French acknowledged that some of those challenges will be even more difficult than addressing the aesthetics, and said they would come at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars more. 

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