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Staff photos by Emily Gedde  

At left, Nick Riley, a local smokejumper firefighter with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, serves as the grand marshal of the annual Fourth of July parade Thursday. Riley was accompanied by Smokey Bear in a 1928 Model AA Ford Stake Truck, used by the Minnesota Forest Service, a precursor to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Division of Forestry. The theme of the annual celebration was centered around the 65th anniversary of the Smokey Bear statue in International Falls, and the 75th anniversary the bear has been a symbol of the U.S. Forest Service.

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Questions unanswered about new port

“The U.S. General Services Administration continues to work on the long-term infrastructure needs at land ports of entry across the United States. At this time, GSA does not have new information about a project at the International Falls Land Port of Entry.”

That was the response to a May inquiry by The Journal about the status of a proposed new port of entry from a GSA spokesperson “on background,” later defining that means not for attribution.

However, one year earlier, local officials were asked for their review and comment on “Submittal #3 of GSA’s Feasibility Study 2018 Update, Final Report, Volume 1,” dated May 10, 2018.

The 246-page report includes about 120 pages of narrative and schematics, prompting a six-page response June 28, 2018, by Koochiching County Commissioner Wade Pavleck, who served as the board chairman at that time.

Pavleck’s letter commented on 19 different design elements included in the update, and had comments and questions about two others.

Among the questions were whether the new port would provide faster and more efficient crossing of U.S.-bound motorists causing more to use it that now use other entry points. Would a new port bring more traffic into the community, he wondered in the letter.

Among the comments were whether the now defunct International Bildrite property, along the south side of Highway 11, could be used as part of the new port facility, or to mitigate land that could be taken for the project from the city of International Falls or Packaging Corporation of America.

The letter concludes with, “We welcome the opportunity to discuss the items listed in this letter, and any other items related to this topic.”

At the June 18, 2018, International Falls City Council meeting, the council agreed to respond to the update by sending Mayor Bob Anderson’s letter of concerns to the General Services Administration on the port of entry plan.

While Anderson said in the letter he supports a new port of entry for the community, he outlined a number of concerns about the new study and plan for a new port, noting the process has been conducted by GSA with little public notice.

Those concerns involved: safety issues in requiring trucks to cross a bicycle path; and relocation of the truck trailers that serve the paper mill to the south side of Highway 11 east, again forcing trailers going to and from the mill to cross the bike path. That relocation of the trailers would also involve the loss of the property the city now uses to place snow collected in the business district, he noted.

The mayor also pointed to the narrowness of the parcel for the new port, which has resulted in the plan to keep portions of the Canada-bound traffic contained on an elevated section above the bank of the river, as well as adding a half-mile to the Canada-bound traffic. In addition, he said the size of the parcel may make it difficult for special truck loads that are longer or heavier than normal.

One year later?

Anderson said Tuesday he and city officials have heard nothing from the GSA staff involved. “Been one year, and we’ve had nothing, not at all,” he said.

“There’s no doubt it would be nice, and it’s needed, to have a new facility, we just don’t know what impacts are going to be to the community, overall,” he said.

Asked whether he believed members of the public will get a chance to see the proposal soon, he said he was unsure.

“I don’t think they invited us, we invited ourselves in,” he said. “We thought we’d given seven years, there ought to be a whole new environmental assessment done.”

Meanwhile, Anderson said he believes staff with Minnesota Department of Transportation working on the U.S. Highway 53 reconstruction in the city are wondering what will happen at the port of entry as it could play a role in the project, planned for construction in 2020 and 2021.

Anderson wondered about funding for the project, which would come from U.S. Congress, and other competition for the money.

“They’re supposed to be attempting to get funding, but it might have been put on hold here because of the needs of the southern border,” Anderson said.

Has the county board had a response?

“Not to my knowledge,” Pavleck said. “This has been now how many years’ process? Nine years is a long time.”

Pavleck said he hopes the county and city’s responses are being addressed in what he expects to see as a final proposal “so we can take it to the public and get comment.”

Catherine Langel, GSA spokeswoman, in 2017 provided via email the following statement to The Journal:

“For land port of entry projects, the U.S. General Services Administration follows the priorities of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Customs and Border Protection. GSA ceased work on this project due to competing priorities and limited funding. GSA continues to work with CBP to plan for its long-term infrastructure needs, and is unaware of any private party interest related to this project.”

Emailed several questions about the status of the plan Monday, to which she replied asking about a deadline, Langel failed to respond to the questions by that deadline.

Meanwhile, the original plan shelved in 2011-12 considered a new location for a new land port-of-entry. The GSA proposed to replace its existing port with a new, $50 million port that would improve the operational efficiency, safety, and security for both federal agency personnel and cross-border travelers.

Staff photo by Emily Gedde 

Dale Blumer, commander of Fort Frances Highlanders, marches down Third Street Thursday.

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Another round of smoke intrusion possible

Even though the weekend's air quality alert expired Sunday, another round of smoke  from Canadian wildfires may intrude into the area later this week.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency reports air quality in the area improved Monday for northern and western Minnesota. However, some smoke from Wisconsin cycled in a clockwise motion around a high pressure center over western Great Lakes region, back into southeastern to eastern Minnesota Monday. South-southwest winds pushed the smoke out of the state Tuesday, but experts expect another intrusion Wednesday night into Thursday.

Wildfires in Manitoba and western Ontario prompted MPCA officials to issue an air quality alert for the northern one-third of Minnesota Saturday and Sunday. The affected area included International Falls, Duluth, Ely, all of the Boundary Water Canoe Area, and the Tribal Nations of Red Lake, Fond du Lac, and Grand Portage.

Wildfires from eastern Manitoba and western Ontario that erupted late Friday created dense smoke that moved southward into northern Minnesota as northerly winds with high pressure approached from the west. Air quality rapidly deteriorated to unhealthy levels in many areas of northern Minnesota reaching the orange, or unhealthy for sensitive groups, category.

Visibility decreased to less than 1-2 miles in many locations due to the dense smoke. 

Should another round of smoke return, MPCA reminds people of the following: 

People whose health is affected by unhealthy air quality:

  • People who have asthma or other breathing conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, and emphysema
  • Children and teenagers
  • People of all ages doing extended or heavy physical activity such as playing sports or working outdoors
  • Some healthy people who are more sensitive to ozone even though they have none of the risk factors. There may be a genetic base for this increased sensitivity.

Higher ozone levels can aggravate lung diseases like asthma, emphysema, and COPD. When air quality is in the unhealthy range, people with these conditions may experience symptoms such as difficulty breathing deeply, shortness of breath, throat soreness, wheezing, coughing, or unusual fatigue. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms use your inhalers as directed and contact your health care provider.

Take precautions:

  • Take it easy and listen to your body.
  • Limit, change, or postpone your physical activity.
  • If possible, stay away from local sources of air pollution like busy roads and wood fires.
  • If you have asthma, or other breathing conditions like COPD, make sure you have your relief/rescue inhaler with you.
  • People with asthma should review and follow guidance in their written asthma action plan. Make an appointment to see your health provider if you don’t have an asthma action plan.

Pollution reduction tips:

  • Ozone is produced on hot, sunny days by a chemical reaction between volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen.
  • Reduce vehicle trips and fill the gas tank at dawn or dusk.
  • Use public transport or carpool when possible.
  • Postpone use of gasoline powered lawn and garden equipment on air alert days. Use battery or manual equipment instead.
  • Avoid backyard fires.

For information on current air quality conditions in the area and to sign up for daily air quality forecasts and alert notifications by email, text message, phone, or the Minnesota Air mobile app visit