At Jax Cafe in northeast Minneapolis, trout still swim in an artificial stream that runs through its back patio. For years, kids could net them for the cook to prepare and serve.
The state Health Department says a private well feeding the stream contains low levels of PCP, a preservative once used to treat railroad ties at the Shoreham railroad yard, a mile to the north. Escaped chemicals left a 100-block plume of groundwater pollution.
No wells in the area are used for drinking water, including Jax Cafe's. Even if people ate trout from the artificial stream, the risk would be minimal, the Health Department says. Still, the 74-year-old bar and restaurant no longer serves them.
"It's costing us double," said owner Bill Kozlak Jr., who purchases other trout for eating. He is considering options including a new well or switching to city water, which already supplies the restaurant's faucets.
Jax Cafe's problem is emblematic of the burden of groundwater pollution. Low levels of chemicals in water rarely make people acutely sick. Yet across the metro area, the pollution carries a cost to cities, businesses and homeowners who have abandoned wells, drilled new ones, added expensive filters or switched to a municipal water source to avoid the long-term risks of chemical pollution.
In the ground, out of sight
Nobody sees or touches pollution at Louisiana Oaks Park in St. Louis Park. It has a pond, trails, playground equipment and soccer and football fields.
Almost forgotten is that from 1917 to 1972, Reilly Tar & Chemical Co. polluted the ground with chemicals used to treat railroad ties. The site eventually got cleaned up in the 1980s and 1990s under the federal Superfund program.
If you dig in the park, you'd soon hit creosote. It extends hundreds of feet below the surface. Engineers didn't try removing it all. The cost was estimated at more than $100 million in 1980, and the tar probably would have clung to the deepest crevices anyway.
"There wasn't anything you were going to do to make the site clean from top to bottom," said William Gregg, senior program manager for the environmental consulting and engineering firm ENSR in St. Louis Park. He has overseen the cleanup since 1980.
The groundwater is polluted for nearly 4 square miles with tar-related chemicals called PAHs, some of which are carcinogens and none of which easily degrade.
For two decades, high-capacity wells around the park have sucked out enough groundwater to halt the plume's progress into Edina's drinking water wells. Most of the pumped-out water is purified, using carbon filtration, and supplies St. Louis Park residents with drinking water.
Reilly spent about $20 million in legal fees, engineering work and cleanup in the 1980s, Gregg said. The company doesn't have to pay the $500,000 annual cost of monitoring and treating the groundwater pollution. The city accepted that responsibility under a 1972 agreement with Reilly.
"I think there was a miscalculation by the administration and the politicians at that time," said Scott Anderson, who became superintendent of utilities after the agreement. Pumping, treating and testing the groundwater likely will be necessary for decades.
"I do not believe I will live to see the end of it," Anderson said. "There is no projected time on it. ... I would say we don't see the light at the end of the tunnel."
Graphic artist Billy Steve Clayton contributed GIS mapping and analysis for this report. David Shaffer • 612-673-7090