Western Lake Superior Sanitary District Oral History
Fourteen oral history interviews were conducted with people knowledgeable about the establishment of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District (WLSSD), early conditions and relevant local environmental issues of the early 1970’s.
This project recorded high-quality interviews with 14 people related to local environmental and WLSSD history; many of them were quite elderly (over 80 years old), so it was important to record these interviews now. These interviews will offer insight for future generations of researchers and WLSSD staff, as well as the hundreds of students and other participants of tours of WLSSD. Tours and other public outreach programs are conducted weekly at WLSSD, often with college students who are not very familiar with the history of environmental legislation and attitude changes of the 1970’s. These interview recordings offer valuable details, specifics and stories about those times that can be used during these tours. Significant parts of WLSSD’s history were “rediscovered” and recorded through this project. It was important to conduct this project now before those memories and key people faded from the record.
As WLSSD completes its third decade of treating wastewater and preventing pollution, many key employees and local leaders involved in the establishment of WLSSD are retiring or passing away. As current WLSSD employees sought to put together displays and presentations celebrating WLSSD's 30th anniversary (full operation of the wastewater treatment facility did not occur until 1978), it was challenging to find photos or specific information focusing on the polluted conditions of the St. Louis River. A few newspaper clippings exist in files, but there had never been a concerted effort to collect these items and discuss the history of the River and WLSSD with people who were active with these issues in the early 1970's. Over the years, WLSSD staff have shown remarkable longevity in their employment, and several current employees were hired over 30 years ago. With upcoming retirements, much of the existing institutional and historical knowledge will be lost unless it was systematically recorded soon, through this project.
Recording WLSSD's history will have farther-reaching importance than simple corporate record-keeping, however. When WLSSD began treating water at the “Water Pollution Control Facility” (as described on a sign at the 1974 groundbreaking), it represented the beginning of a change in public attitudes toward protecting local resources. WLSSD’s treatment process also facilitated increased citizen interaction with the river; i.e. the return of fishing and other recreational opportunities, and paved the way for regional economic development. Funding for the facilities was made possible through federal and state programs, reflecting nation-wide changes related to conservation in the early 1970’s. The establishment of WLSSD was made possible by a unique collaboration of local citizen groups, legislative efforts and state and federal and state funding. Evidenced by the prescriptive enabling legislation, the establishment of the District was not without controversy and monumental effort.
(b) Statewide Historic and Cultural Grants. (i) $2,250,000 in 2010 and $4,500,000 in 2011 are appropriated for history programs and projects operated or conducted by or through local, county, regional or other historical or cultural organizations; or for activities to preserve significant historic and cultural resources. Funds are to be distributed through a competitive grants process. The Minnesota Historical Society shall administer these funds using established grants mechanisms, and with assistance from the advisory committee created herein.