The causeway conspiracy, and other tales

John Ramos

Photo illustration by: Richard Thomas
Photo illustration by: Richard Thomas

In September, I reported on Duluth Mayor Emily Larson’s controversial proposal to remove a railroad causeway from a section of the St. Louis River estuary known as Mud Lake. I showed that, for several months prior to announcing the plan, the administration had been working behind the scenes to implement it, all while saying publicly that they had not decided anything. The city was aided in its efforts by state and federal natural resource agencies, which were also working behind the scenes to help the city get rid of the causeway. 

Recently, I have discovered that the role of the state Department of Natural Resources was more extensive than I first reported. Internal DNR emails that I obtained via a Freedom of Information request show that the DNR was actively planning the causeway’s destruction for almost five months prior to the city’s announcement—not two, as I reported originally.

In late 2016 and early 2017, Duluth city councilors received a stream of emails and phone calls from railroad supporters who were worried that the city had already made up its mind to get rid of the railroad. Seeking more information, some councilors asked the city administration to explain what was going on. 

On Jan. 11, 2017, Director of Public Administration Jim Filby Williams assured councilors that, despite what they may have been hearing from the public, “there has been no decision to eliminate the rail, nor is that a preconceived conclusion ... City staff are developing three options for presentation to the public, the Parks Commission, and the City Council.” 

On Jan. 30, Mayor Larson reinforced this message in an email to a concerned citizen. “I understand from your email that you may be thinking the City has an agenda that is either predetermined or outside of the values and norms of the community. While I may be unable to persuade you, I can personally assure you I am listening and taking all views and viewpoints into consideration as we move ahead as a community.”

On Feb. 3, DNR St. Louis River Area of Concern Coordinator John Lindgren emailed DNR St. Louis River Program Supervisor Molly MacGregor. “Jim Filby Williams contacted me a few days ago to pick my brain on … the Superfund process in relation to how it could impact potentially shared resource outcomes in the Spirit and Mud Lakes area.  He certainly understands the sensitivity of the situation relative to our position on the Scenic Railroad issue. In light of potentially new financial support for our desired project outcomes in this area and some discussions that Jim has had with Scott [Cieniawski] at EPA, it may make sense to at least visualize some integrations between all of the various entities that are advancing things along this shoreline and in the estuary. I will let you make the call on this, Molly.”

MacGregor emailed Lindgren back. “John, I am reading between your lines, but it seems to me the next step is to revisit the Mud Lake-Spirit Lake assessments and develop a [scope of work] for a project. I definitely think this should be done.”
Lindgren emailed MacGregor back. “Yes.  I agree. The exact objectives and outcomes of a project focused exclusively on a MNDNR scope could look a little different than one also taking into account integrations with desired outcomes of other partners and other initiatives. Devil is in the details.”
Jim Filby Williams, who had been following the discussion, jumped in. “I envision a visual that depicts the answer to the question: How, in general, would DNR restore Mud Lake if the City of Duluth chose to remove the rail bed/causeway?”
“We could never accuse Jim of not being focused,” Lindgren commented to MacGregor in a humorous aside.
In case people are wondering what this all means, these emails pinpoint exactly when the city and the DNR joined in a common pursuit to get rid of the causeway.
One week later, on Feb. 10, 2017, Lindgren received a report from Andy Dammer, a project manager with Veit Engineering. The report, which Lindgren forwarded to Filby Williams and MacGregor, discussed preliminary cost estimates for removing the Mud Lake causeway. “I attached an aerial [photo] with my notes and assumptions on it,” wrote Dammer. LF stands for linear feet.

Price 1, southern end, 920 LF of wetland area and 1,900 LF of open water area: $400,000

Alternate, northern end, 2,840 LF of wetland area: add to price $175,000

Includes:

Excavation taking place in winter
Removing railroad ties
Removing bridge
Removing causeway to 3’ below water in the open water area
Removing causeway to 1’ below water in wetland areas
Hauling excavated material across ice to disposal site at base of slag bluff
Some pushing and grading of material at disposal site, not meeting a grading plan
Clearing/Grubbing disposal site to receive excavated material
Seeding and erosion control of disposal site when complete
Assumes permission to access US Steel property

Excludes:

Permitting
Any grade requirements at disposal site
Contaminated Soils
Any digging or dredging outside of causeway
On April 12, Lindgren emailed Filby Williams. “I am submitting a high level scoping document to our DNR Commissioners level this Friday … We should talk about where you think we are with a larger vision for Mud Lake. We most probably will not receive funding during this round for Mud, but it would be considered on deck for next year … We will also be signing a Partnership Agreement with USACE for design of Perch [Lake]. We would intend to expand that to the design of Mud. That is not common knowledge, so keep it to yourself. Molly is appraised of all of these things also and is waiting and trying to determine where we should be going with Mud.”

Filby Williams replied the next day, April 13. “The mayoral vision we are developing for eventual public presentation is consistent with the robust restoration of Mud we have been discussing.”
In another email, Filby Williams assured Mayor Larson that the natural resource people he was talking to understood that her vision was supposed to be kept secret. “These are all seasoned leaders I know well and trust to keep our confidence.”
On May 31, Lindgren submitted his 2018 funding request to the state, asking for $8.6 million to fund six habitat restoration projects in the St. Louis River estuary. Regarding Mud Lake, he wrote “An opportunity is emerging to enhance the hydrologic connection with the estuary and improve open-water wetlands by removing the causeway and wood waste in partnership with the City of Duluth.” He asked the state for $2.7 million to do the project. 

And when—let us refresh our faulty memories—when was it, again, that the mayor publicly unveiled her proposal to remove the causeway? Ah, yes—it was on June 13, 2017. Standing in the audience in the Morgan Park Community Center on that fine day, applauding the mayor’s proposal as if it was the first time they’d ever heard it, were some of the same natural resource people who had been involved in plotting the causeway’s ruin since January.

Spirit Mountain sees better snowmaking, no savings with water line

In reviewing old meetings during the course of my work, I often come across interesting items from the past. Take, for example, the Spirit Mountain Board meeting of Jan. 22, 2009, when a representative from Johnson Controls was dazzling board members with visions of the money they would save when they built their new water line down to the St. Louis River.

That day, the board was talking about strategies to implement Spirit Mountain’s new master plan. Phil Strom, chair of the finance subcommittee, was recommending that they ask the city for more tourism tax money. Jeff Schiltz of Johnson Controls was there, apparently, to keep everyone feeling happy and optimistic.

Jeff Schiltz: When the project subcommittee was put together, [they studied this] for four months, based on what they think a zipline would bring in in revenue, what they think a tubing hill would bring in in revenue, how much we think it’ll save with our new water supply system and the energy and water costs and so forth. The water supply infrastructure will save $160,000 a year. That’s huge. That’s big dollars…If indeed you can get to where you’re extremely profitable, you’ll have those dollars on an ongoing basis years down the road to reinvest and reinvest and keep doing some of the infrastructure improvements or new attractions.

The idea that the new water line would save the ski hill “big dollars” was a constant refrain in public meetings and news stories over the years. In 2013, Spirit Mountain Executive Director Renee Mattson told the Duluth News Tribune that the new water line “would conservatively reduce water and labor costs by a combined total of more than $200,000 per year.” 

“State Sen. Roger Reinert and I were able to secure state bonding funds for the independent water system for its snowmaking operations, a project that is underway,” State Rep. Eric Simonson wrote in 2015. “That initiative will help in reducing costs to the facility.”
The water line was completed in October of 2015, using $2.5 million from the city, $3.4 million from the state, and $500,000 from the DNR. It is now in its third season of operation—a perfect time to check on the promises. Has the new water line saved Spirit Mountain money?
At the Spirit Mountain board meeting of Nov. 16, 2017, General Manager Jody Ream said that, performance-wise, the water line was living up to expectations. “It’s a wonderful system, there’s no doubt. When you look at just sheer volume and capacity levels, it’s something that this hill’s never seen before. It’s basically doubled the opportunity [to make snow]…We’re certainly thankful to have it, and it’s nice to have that water.” Ream said that having the extra capacity allowed the ski hill to make more snow earlier in the year, if temperatures were cold enough; and that, without the help of the water line, they might not have been able to make enough snow to host Snocross in the previous two years.

Of course, higher capacity levels also bring higher costs. While the water line saves Spirit Mountain from having to pay a big water bill for snowmaking, they do have to pay for the electricity to pump the water up from the St. Louis River. Maintaining the two new pumphouses adds to the expense, as does maintaining the new pipes and snowmaking equipment. Some of the new equipment is leased, another expense. The new system also has a tendency to blow out older pipes on the hill, which creates yet another expense. 

All in all, when asked whether the water line had fulfilled its promise financially, Ream said, “On the cost-saving side of things, not so much.”

Those darn consultants

Interestingly, at the same time that Jeff Schiltz was making his enthusiastic pitch for the water line to the Spirit Mountain board in 2009, he was also working for the Duluth School District to promote the galactically expensive long-range facilities plan, known as the Red Plan. Schiltz’s confident pronouncements of huge future savings were one factor in pushing the Red Plan through to fruition. Today, as the school district struggles to pay the bonds wrought by that horrific debacle, their anticipated savings have turned out to be every bit as elusive as Spirit Mountain’s. Consultants’ promises may not always be reliable, but at least they’re empty.

Column #100

Yes, you read that right: This is the 100th City Beat column. The first City Beat was published on May 1, 2014. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long. We often wondered if we would make it all the way to 100, but at one crucial turning point the world rallied around us and we did make it. So a big thank you goes out to the world. Those of you who know what I’m talking about know what I’m talking about. We are going to be bothering City Hall for at least another year.