Assessment of ground-water contamination by coal-tar derivatives, St. Louis Park area, Minnesota

Open-File Report 84-867

Prepared in cooperation with the Minnesota Department of Health, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, City of St. Louis Park, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency



Operation of a coal-tar distillation and wood-preserving facility in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, during 1918-72 contaminated ground water with coal-tar derivatives and inorganic chemicals. Coal-tar derivatives entered the groundwater system through three major paths: (1) Spills and drippings that percolated to the water table, (2) surface runoff and plant process water that was discharged to wetlands south of the former plant site, and (3) movement of coal tar directly into bedrock aquifers through a multiaquifer well on the site.

In the drift, Platteville, and St. Peter aquifers, ground water flows laterally from west to east and vertically downward. Near the former plant site, creosote-like organic fluids have migrated vertically downward through the drift and are being partially dissolved by ground water. Ground water has preferentially mobilized low-molecular-weight compounds such as phenolic compounds, alkyl-benzenes, and naphthalene, although polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons as heavy as benzo(a)pyrene have been mobilized at low concentrations. Sorption of high-molecular-weight compounds has retarded their migration down the hydraulic gradient compared to low-molecular-weight compounds in the plume. Some simple phenolic compounds are being degraded to methane and carbon dioxide by bacteria under anaerobic conditions in the drift-PlattevilleSt. Peter aquifer system. Other low-molecular-weight aromatic compounds are apparently being degraded by aerobic bacteria at the periphery of the plume where oxygen is available. Intermediate degradation products such as volatile fatty acids are likely present, but complete conversion of the organic contaminants to innocuous inorganic substances has not been demonstrated. Near and south of 36th and Wooddale Avenues, contaminants enter the St. Peter aquifer where the Glenwood confining unit has been eroded in a buried bedrock valley. Contaminants previously entered the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer through at least one multiaquif er well (W38). Other sources of contaminants and the low concentrations of contaminants hamper delineation of the maximum areal extent of contaminants that are resistant to biologic degradation. These biorefractory compounds will probably continue to migrate down the hydraulic gradients in the drift and Platteville and St. Peter aquifers.

Of particular concern with respect to the health risk to humans are the polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which are a major constituent of coal tar and are found in municipal wells near the site that are completed in the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer. The Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer lies 250 to 500 feet below land surface and is relatively well protected from nearsurface sources of contamination by overlying rocks. However, the aquifer has been contaminated since at least 1932 because coal-tar derivatives have entered the aquifer through multiaquifer wells. The most significant single source of contamination in the aquifer is a well drilled on the site in 1917 (well W23) that has contained liquid coal-tar since at least 1958. The introduction, dissolution, and movement of this coal-tar in ground water has contaminated nearby municipal wells. The composition of the tar in well W23, and the ratio of concentrations of individual compounds in water from well W23 to those in municipal well SLP15, are consistent with known hydrologic, chemical, and biologic processes, and the conclusion that contaminants in well SLP15 are due primarily to contaminants introduced at well W23. Most of the major polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons in the tar, although slightly soluble in water and strongly sorbed by aquifer materials, have moved greater distances at higher concentrations than have the lower-molecular-weight, more soluble compounds such as phenolic compounds and naphthalene. The latter are apparently being degraded by bacteria.

The direction and rate of contaminant movement within the Prairie du Chien-Jordan aquifer changes with time because the ground-water-flow system continually adjusts to hydraulic stresses caused by ground-water withdrawals and flow through multiaquifer wells. Contaminants can move rapidly through the Prairie du Chien-Jordan because the upper part of the aquifer is a carbonate rock having fracture and solution-channel permeability, low effective porosity, and relatively small surface area for sorption. Consequently, the concentration and composition of contaminants in water pumped from individual industrial and municipal wells completed in the aquifer fluctuate with time. Although contaminants have been in the aquifer for at least 50 years and their spatial distribution is complex, concentrations remain highest near their points of introduction through multiaquifer wells near and on the site of the former plant.

Contaminants reached the Ironton-Galesville aquifer through at least two deep multiaquifer wells (W23 and W38), but the extent of contamination in this aquifer, and in the underlying Mount Simon-Hinckley aquifer, is not known.

Study Area

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Assessment of ground-water contamination by coal-tar derivatives, St. Louis Park area, Minnesota
Series title:
Open-File Report
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location:
St. Paul, MN
Contributing office(s):
Minnesota Water Science Center
v, 57 p.
United States
St. Louis Park
Online Only (Y/N):
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