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Skunk Creek contaminated by sewage spill

Burlington Bay Beach was closed after high levels of E. coli were descovered in the water. Photo by Todd Ronning.1 / 2
An electrical problem resulted iin the release of 35,000 gallons of waste water into Skunk Creek in Two Harbors last week. Photo by Todd Ronning.2 / 2

An estimated 35,000 gallons of sewage seeped into Skunk Creek and spread to Burlington Bay early last week. The resulting contamination caused the closure of the beach off and on throughout that week and into this week. According to public utilities Gas, Water and Sewer Superintendent, Scott Johnson, the leakage was caused by an electrical failure due to a faulty breaker, resulting in the release of previously contained sewage which harbored bacteria.

"There was overflow out of a pipe we didn't even know about," Johnson said. "There will be an investigation."

Johnson says that the pipe, which he said comes out of Skunk Creek, was discovered the day of the spill. The discoloration of the water in the creek caught the attention of Todd Ronning.

"I am a supervisor for Lake County Soil and Water District and a volunteer citizen for the (Minnesota Pollution Control Agency,)" Ronning said, adding that he's been doing volunteer work monitoring Skunk Creek for seven years. "That work has caused me to take an interest in happenings in the watershed that affect cleanliness."

Ronning said he discovered the spill around 4:30 p.m. Monday, Aug 19. He said he recalled walking his dog earlier that morning and everything seemed fine along the water's edge. Just hours later, though, another walk alerted him to the condition of the creek and lake.

"There was something amiss in the watershed." Ronning commented. Ronning said he kept an eye on the situation online and took water samples from Skunk Creek.

"I started watching Minnesota Beaches website and I recall the number for the sample from Burlington Bay was listed as greater than 2400 (colony forming units per milliliter)" Ronning said.

A figure he understood to be significant, which was later confirmed by Cynthia Hakala, Beach Program Coordinator for the Minnesota Department of Health.

Ronning said that he was told by Hakala that the E. coli levels at Burlington Bay on Aug.19 were 410 cfu/100mL , but went on to say that levels were 'off the charts the following day at over 2,400 cfu/100mL'. Hakala said the lab can't detect levels higher than that.

According to Johnson, a sign was placed at Burlington Bay Beach warning that the bacteria content levels were not acceptable for human contact. Although the water advisory warning was revoked on Aug. 20, the sign was not removed until Aug. 23. The advisory was then reinstated on the Aug.27, based on a sample collected the day prior. The beach was once again closed due to high bacteria levels.

According to the Minnesota Lake Superior Beach Monitoring Program, federal water standards require that bacteria content not be allowed to exceed 235 E. coli colonies per 100 mL of water in a single sample without issue of advisory. The geometric mean ( the mean of at least five samples taken during a 30 day period) must not exceed 126 E. coli colonies per 100 ml of water.

There are also acceptable standards for fecal coliform set by the state. Levels in the water cannot exceed 400 fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml of water in more than ten percent of all samples. Samples are taken during a 30 day period. According to state, the geometric mean cannot be allowed to exceed 200 fecal coliform colonies per 100 ml of water. A number greater than 2,400 is a high level compared to both sets of standards.

"Raw sewage coming into the water is plumb full of bacteria. People can get really sick. Lake Superior is a popular place for Lake County residents to enjoy the water." Ronning said, "there's a real health risk."

"There will be corrective action. We're working on it," Johnson said. "We can't get it all figured out at once."

For additional information about standards and safe waters, visit