State To Study Contamination Around Superior Cleanup Site

Hog Island, Nearby Area Have History Of Petroleum Pollution


Wisconsin state officials are planning to investigate contamination that remains in the area around Hog Island in Superior years after the site was subject to a major environmental cleanup effort targeting the most polluted waters in the Great Lakes.

Hog Island is located in an inlet where a small stream known as Newton Creek flows into Superior Bay. The creek’s headwaters are located near the former Murphy Oil Refinery, which is now owned by Calumet.

In 2005, around 44,000 cubic yards of petroleum-contaminated sediments were removed around the island and the creek as part of the St. Louis River cleanup. Officials had listed the river as a Great Lakes Area of Concern in 1987 because of the severe pollution.

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The restoration was one of the first projects completed under the Great Lakes Legacy Act of 2002. Prior to the cleanup, surveys found only “sludge worms” were able to thrive in Newton Creek during the 1970s, according to a 2014 report by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Duluth’s Charlie Deville now wants to build a disc golf course on the island, but he said Douglas County won’t approve it because apparently the $6.3 million cleanup didn’t remove everything.

“The whole point of doing that … was to make this accessible,” he said. “They obviously didn’t do that at all, and now it’s just a big old sloppy mess again.”

Mark Liebart, chair of the Douglas County Land and Conservation Committee, noted that some people have complained of a petroleum odor in the area. He said his committee had asked the DNR to study the area to assess the risk to people who recreate there or develop the site. The agency has now formulated plans to coordinate with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services on a study of the area.

John Robinson, northern region supervisor for the DNR’s Remediation and Redevelopment Program, said researchers will collect sediment and water samples from the creek this spring. DHS staff, for their part, will do field inspections to determine whether there are any potential health risks, according to a DHS spokeswoman.

The DNR is still seeking funding to conduct the study. Robinson said they hope to have details finalized by the middle of March.

Robinson said the agency’s previous investigation of the Hog Island Inlet yielded findings of residual contamination that was not considered a risk to ecological or human health.

“All of the contamination along the creek was not removed. Most of it was, but there was residual contamination behind roads and abutments,” said Robinson.

Robinson said those structural impediments prevented the removal of all the contamination. However, he said those areas are flagged in the event any repairs or road construction takes place.

The DNR’s waters program is also concerned recent flooding events may have washed residual contamination within the soil into the creek.

“It may or may not be from Calumet. It may be from other sources,” said Robinson. “(The study) is to investigate the quality or the status of the creek’s health.”

Kollin Schade, refinery manager at Calumet in Superior, said the study is a positive thing for any concerned residents.

“They have every right to test any headwaters that go into Lake Superior,” he said. “They have every right and obligation to protect that resource.”

The refinery installed a wastewater treatment plant nearby in the mid-90s. Calumet provides reports conducted by a third party lab to the DNR as part of compliance with its Wisconsin Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit, according to Schade. He said whether there’s any cause for concern as a result of the refinery’s operations or past contamination would be pure speculation.

“We will always be connected to Newton Creek just because of the location of the refinery,” said Schade. “But it is important for everyone to understand that there are multiple industrial facilities that drain through the Newton Creek watershed … There are a lot of items that can feed into that creek, and I think it will be worth understanding what’s going on there.”

Meanwhile, Deville said he’s working toward building another disc golf course in Duluth. But, he said he’s still committed to the project in Superior.

“There would be no problem putting this (course) in,” he said. “It’s just that we ran into the fact that back in our history we poisoned this area and then we’ve done a really bad job of cleaning it up.”

Liebart said his committee isn’t necessarily opposed to Deville’s proposal. However, he said they don’t feel the island is the most appropriate location, and have suggested other county sites for the disc golf course.