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EPA Great Lakes National Program Office
Scott Cieniawski

St. Louis River & Bay Area of Concern

Lake Superior


IIn 1992, the first remedial action plan for the St. Louis River was created outlining future cleanup projects to delist the area of concern. The major priorities include remediating contaminated sediment and habitat restoration. Wisconsin and Minnesota have been working together on restoration and remediation projects at the most critical sites. The St. Louis River AOC has experienced several accomplishments in recent years.

Wastewater treatment infrastructure has improved, resulting in better water quality. There have also been upgrades to stormwater management since the Regional Stormwater Protection Team was formed. The team educates residents and municipalities on how to prevent runoff, thus reducing nonpoint source pollution into the river. Mercury levels have declined due to education, statewide initiatives, and the efforts of industries using low- to no-mercury chemicals. Major contaminated sediment sites are being cleaned up through programs such as the Great Lakes Legacy Act and Superfund, including Hog Island Inlet and the St. Louis River Interlake Duluth Tar sites.

Lake Sturgeon is making strides toward recovery in the St. Louis River after many years of population decimation. Sturgeon reproduction occurred in 2011 – the first evidence of the phenomenon in over a century. Habitat protection and restoration have also been successful in many locations around the AOC, including Grassy Point, Tallas Island, Radio Tower Bay, Clough Island and Spirit Island. Eight remediation and restoration projects have been initiated or completed since 2012.

The St. Louis River AOC Remedial Action Plan and roadmap to delisting have been developed. Funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the RAP outlines plans to be taken by federal, state, and local organizations to remove the nine beneficial use impairments or BUIs. Implementation of the Remedial Action Plan is underway. The 2013 RAP has aggressive goals for BUI removal with specific action items, timeframes and cost estimates to delist the AOC by 2025.

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About the St. Louis River

The St. Louis River, the largest U.S. tributary to Lake Superior, drains 3,634 square miles and enters the southwest corner of the lake between Duluth, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin. The river flows 179 miles through three distinct areas: coarse soils, glacial till and outwash deposits at its headwaters; a deep, narrow gorge at Jay Cooke State Park; and red clay deposits in its lower reaches. As it approaches Duluth and Superior, the river takes on the characteristics of a 12,000-acre freshwater estuary. The upper estuary has some wilderness-like areas, while the lower estuary is characterized by urban development, an industrialized harbor, and a major port. The lower estuary includes St. Louis Bay, Superior Bay, Allouez Bay, Kimball's Bay, Pokegama Bay, Howards Bay, and the lower Nemadji River.

The St. Louis River system has a long history of ecological degradation and pollution that continues into the present. Historical discharges resulted in sediment being contaminated with various pollutants, including mercury, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. High levels of contamination were found at the Interlake and U.S. Steel Superfund sites, Newton Creek and Hog Island Inlet, Crawford Creek wetland, and the inlet receiving wastewater discharge from the local sanitation facility. Landfill sites and other point-source dischargers have also contributed to the contamination. The BUIs stem equally from point and nonpoint source pollution.

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RAP Development More information

The St. Louis River AOC is being managed by the St. Louis River system remedial action plan. The RAP focuses primarily on the 39 miles of the St. Louis River below Cloquet, Minnesota. The RAP began in 1989 as a collaborative 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 agency assistance, the committee began operating in 1996 as an independent nonprofit organization. Many of the original resident and agency partners are still active in the RAP and CAC, which is now known as the St. Louis River Alliance. While system-wide in its approach, the St. Louis River AOC focuses primarily on the lower 39 river miles followed by the entire 360 square mile Nemadji River watershed. The Nemadji River is split almost equally between Minnesota and Wisconsin and discharges into the Duluth-Superior Harbor near the natural outlet of the St. Louis River. This is America's busiest inland port with over 1,000 vessels visiting annually that create $210 million of economic activity.

Beneficial Use Impairments

The RAP process determined that nine of 14 identified beneficial uses were impaired. Some impairments were associated with physical loss and degradation of habitat, with the estuary having lost an estimated 7,700 acres of wetland and open water habitat due to settlement. Industrial discharges caused the river to produce an unpleasant odor for several years. The opening of the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District wastewater treatment plant in 1978 caused that to change. Nevertheless, pollution continues to accrue from point and nonpoint sources such as contaminated sediment, abandoned hazardous waste sites, poorly designed or leaky landfills, airborne deposition, industrial discharges, chemical spills, improperly treated sewage, and surface runoff. Here are the nine beneficial use impairments:

  • 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
  • Degradation of benthos
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat

Delisting Targets More information

The December 2012 RAP Update outlines the upcoming steps that will lead to the delisting of the nine BUIs and ultimately, the St. Louis River. Data assessment and management will be critical in forthcoming projects. Remediating the contaminated sediments will also play a large role in the removal of BUIs. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and their partners completed and published the AOC Implementation Framework in 2013. This document creates a "roadmap" towards realizing delisting targets and draft individual BUI removal packets.

RAP Status

The initial action plan called Stage I was published and reviewed in 1992. The International Joint Commission gave the RAP high marks for broadening the geographic scope of the AOC and expanding the definition of the use impairments in order to fully encompass local environmental concerns.

A progress report containing the Citizen Advisory Committee's 43 Stage II recommendations was published in 1995. Implementation began immediately and continues today. Some recommended actions are well underway or completed, such as: (1) public land acquisition, with 34,000 acres bordering the river permanently protected by purchase or donation; (2) connection of Fond du Lac, Minnesota, – responsible for a high percentage of failing septic systems – to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District; (3) programs to reduce sewage bypasses by keeping stormwater out of sanitary sewer systems; (4) completion of a habitat plan for the lower St. Louis River; and (5) implementation of a three-phase sediment strategy to reduce impairments associated with sediment contamination.

The latest RAP update was published in December 2012. It reported the completion of several biological assessments and progress in various restoration and remediation projects. Priorities for 2013 were outlined, including participation in various organizational workgroups and site-specific project planning in the AOC. The 2013 Implementation Framework outlines specific management actions required to remove BUIs


  • 2014: Aesthetics BUI Removed
  • 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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Community Involvement

The St. Louis River Alliance consists of a broad cross-section of community residents who work together to improve the St. Louis River. The independent nonprofit organization was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) organization in 1996 to encourage implementation of the RAP and restoration of the AOC. The SLRA has a successful track record of bringing parties together to implement projects and facilitate multi-jurisdictional strategies for the AOC. A prime example is the 2002 Lower St. Louis River Habitat Plan, which was developed by the SLRA with federal, state, tribal and local resource management professionals and residents. This plan is used extensively by resource management agencies and local communities.

The St. Louis River System RAP has been recognized since its inception for its high level of public participation. Hundreds of individuals have worked together to identify problems, develop and implement recommendations and encourage environmental stewardship. They have provided crucial support for the RAP process and helped to improve the health of the St. Louis River ecosystem. River Watch Program in Minnesota and Water Watch Program in Wisconsin have involved numerous area teachers and students in hands-on, field-oriented, water-quality education and monitoring. These efforts have also included a spring River Congress, annual storm-drain stenciling and several art/science projects.

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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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