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EPA Great Lakes National Program Office
Scott Cieniawski

St. Louis River Area of Concern

Lake Superior

The St. Louis River was named a Great Lakes Area of Concern in the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1987. Areas of Concern are specifically designated geographic areas within the Great Lakes basin that have experienced severe environmental degradation, largely due to the impact of decades of uncontrolled pollution.

The St. Louis River drains 3,634 square miles and enters the southwest corner of Lake Superior between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. Due to historical discharges, river sediments were contaminated with various pollutants including mercury, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. Contamination has been found at several sites along the river, including the Interlake and U.S. Steel Superfund sites, Newton Creek and Hog Island Inlet. Landfill sites and other point-source dischargers along the river have also contributed to the contamination.

The St. Louis River AOC stakeholders have made significant progress towards restoring the beneficial uses of the river. Construction is complete on sediment remediation and habitat restoration projects. Control of historical point source discharges is in place, including the Duluth waste water treatment plant.

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Beneficial Use Impairments

When the St. Louis River was designated an AOC, the following environmental impairments were identified:

  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • Excessive loading of sediment and nutrients
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings
  • Fish tumors or other deformities
  • Degradation of aesthetics Removed 2014
  • Degradation of benthos
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
  • Delisting targets

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Efforts towards restoration

The remedial action planning process for the St. Louis River began in 1989 as a combined effort between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.  At that time, the agencies created a citizens advisory committee.  With the agency’s assistance, the committee opened its doors in 1996 as an independent nonprofit organization, now called the St. Louis River Alliance.

  • The 2013 Roadmap to Delisting (PDF) (78 pp, 1.8 MB) shows the remaining management actions to remove the remaining BUIs to delist the AOC
  • Removal of the Degradation of Aesthetics BUI in August 2014 is the first BUI removed in the St. Louis River AOC
  • A progress report was published by the St. Louis River Alliance in 2013. The report outlined several achievements that have been made in the AOC and also detailed upcoming projects that will be implemented to help delist the AOC
  • The first natural reproduction of lake sturgeon was observed in 2011. A continuation of this phenomenon is an important step in removing the degradation of fish and wildlife populations’ impairment
  • Remedial efforts at the St. Louis Interlake Duluth Tar Superfund site were completed in 2011. The site was cleaned up as three separate Operable Units. Cleanup and restoration efforts have significantly reduced the contamination and potential for future pollution in the St. Louis River
  • Erie Pier was converted to a reuse and recycling facility in 2007. The site was formerly functioned as a confined disposal facility. This will improve Erie’s long-term capacity for managing dredged material
  • The Hog Island Great Lakes Legacy Act project was completed in 2005. Nearly 55,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated sediment was removed from Newton Creek and parts of the Hog Island Inlet. The banks of the creek and inlet were landscaped to prevent erosion. Outcomes of the project include healthier habitats for fish and other aquatic life, and safer recreational opportunities in the inlet
  • The Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan was completed in 2002. The CAC worked with several partners from city, county, state, and federal agencies and entities on this document. The plan has been used extensively by resource management agencies and local communities for several years
  • Restoration efforts at Grassy Point were completed in 1998. This project removed sawmill waste and restored recreational access to residents

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  • Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Accelerates Cleanup of St. Louis River Area of Concern - Aug. 29, 2014
  • Feasibility studies, design work, and permitting are underway for additional, large-scale projects for restoration and remediation on both the Wisconsin and Minnesota sides of the AOC. Construction for many of these projects will commence in 2015 and 2016, with the goal to complete all remaining management actions by 2020.
  • Eight BUIs remain, but major state, federal, and local resources have the common goal of completing all required work by 2020 and delisting the AOC by 2025. EPA resources support planning, design, and implementation of sediment remediation, habitat restoration, and ongoing evaluation of environmental conditions.

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  • 2014: Knowlton Creek Habitat Restoration Project Construction Start
  • 2013: Progress report published by the St. Louis River Alliance.
  • 2012: RAP Update published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
  • 2011: Stage II RAP Update published by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
  • 2011: A more thorough report of delisting targets was published as the St. Louis Area of Concern Complete Delisting Targets.
  • 2008: The St. Louis River AOC Delisting Targets document was published by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
  • 2004: The Citizen's Action Committee proposed restoration goals for many of the impaired uses through a citizen process and submitted them to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.
  • 2002: Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan completed. The CAC worked with several partners from city, county, state, and federal agencies and entities on this document.
  • 1999: The CAC received funding to implement the habitat plan recommendation
  • 1996: St. Louis River Citizens Action Committee formed.
  • 1995: RAP Recommendation Implementation Status document drafted.
  • 1995: St. Louis River System RAP Progress Report completed.
  • 1992: The St. Louis River System RAP Stage I document completed.

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You will need Adobe Reader to view some of the files on this page. See EPA's PDF page to learn more.

DocumentsExit EPA Disclaimer

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Community Involvement

The St. Louis River Alliance was created to put into practice the RAP and the restoration of the AOC. The SLRA developed the 2002 Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan.  This plan has been useful for resource management agencies and local communities.  This collaborative process was useful during development of the 2013 Roadmap to Delisting document for the AOC.

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What is a beneficial use impairment?

Impairment of beneficial use is a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any of the following 14 use impairments:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • tainted fish and wildlife flavor
  • loss of fish or wildlife habitat
  • degraded fish and wildlife populations
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems
  • degradation of benthic macroinvertebrate communities
  • restrictions on dredging activities
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems
  • beach closings
  • degradation of aesthetics
  • added costs to agriculture and industry
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton

What is a remedial action plan?

The remedial action plan, or RAP, is a process to clean up the waterfront, rivers, habitats and waters. The United States and Canada, as part of the Great Lake Water Quality Agreement, committed to cooperate with State and Provincial Governments to ensure that RAPs are developed and implemented for all Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes basin. Forty-three AOCs have been identified: 26 located entirely within the United States; 12 located entirely within Canada; and five that are shared by both countries. RAPs address impairments to any one of 14 beneficial uses (e.g., restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities, or drinking water consumption) associated with these areas.

What is a delisting target?

In order to move towards formal delisting, RAPs need delisting targets to gauge their success:

  • Delisting targets should be premised on local goals and related environmental objectives for the watershed; they should be consistent with the applicable federal and state regulations, objectives, guidelines, standards and policies, when available, and the principles and objectives embodied in Annex 2 and supporting parts of the GLWQA.
  • Delisting targets should have measurable indicators.
  • Delisting targets should be developed and periodically reviewed on a site specific basis (allowing for flexibility in addressing local conditions) by the respective state agencies, in consultation with local stakeholder groups. This is particularly important if new information becomes available.

More information about the delisting process>>

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