The ancient American Indian burial mounds that curve along a slope in the Old Village of Afton embody a snake or a fish long seen as a powerful and eternal symbol in many Dakota and Ojibwe legends.

But in recent months, a plan by Afton officials to install a $4 million sewage system has raised concerns about the preservation of those sacred mounds, located only a few hundred yards from the St. Croix River.

The city, after recent pressure from the state archaeologist, has assured residents and state officials that the project's septic lines won't damage the mounds. Yet some residents are pushing the city to move the proposed lines to avoid disturbing the mounds and potentially polluting nearby tributaries and groundwater wells.

While it has been debated whether human remains are actually located there, the mounds still hold a cultural significance for Indians, said Bruce White, a historian and anthropologist who specializes in American Indian history in Minnesota.

"You don't have to find human remains for it to be culturally significant," White said.

Although most of the mounds are no longer visible, and may have been destroyed by previous construction, the city should still avoid digging nearby, said Scott Anfinson, the state archaeologist.

"When we're talking about burial sites, we always want to err on the side of caution," said David Mather, a national register archaeologist at the Minnesota National Historical Society. "This isn't a problem that's unique to Afton — it's a problem that happens all over Minnesota."

Earlier this month, Anfinson wrote a letter to city officials asking that a proposed lift station near the mounds be moved. He also has asked the city to provide him with a map showing where the septic lines would go, to ensure that they steer clear of the burial site. Finally, he asked that an archaeologist be on site.

Anfinson said in a recent interview that the "greatest threat" to the mounds was another city project, one that calls for establishing stormwater ponds nearby.

"I told the city I wanted them to move the stormwater ponds so they would be at least 20 feet away from the mounds," he said.

Afton officials assured the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) Citizens' Board in a meeting last week that construction work will, indeed, be at least 20 feet from the mounds.

City Engineer Todd Hubmer also said that the city has "agreed to make some adjustments" to the project setbacks and "have an archaeologist on site during construction to notify us of any findings."

Groundwater concerns

The threat to the burial mounds is just one of several environmental issues troubling residents in Afton and the neighboring cities of Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point.

The sewer project, which includes a 25-acre sewage treatment facility, has been a source of constant — and sometimes tense — debate.

Afton officials say it will help the city's failing septic systems and help clean up the St. Croix River.

"We are confident we selected a site that is fit for this project," said Afton City Administrator Ron Moorse.

But some residents fear it will pollute nearby tributaries and groundwater wells.

Plans call for building the facility in a grassy field at 2318 St. Croix Trail South. Several groundwater wells are nearby, as is Valley Creek, a trout stream that extends from Afton to the St. Croix River.

Jim and Kathy Golden have lived near the proposed treatment facility site for 12 years. Kathy Golden said that when she and her husband found out about the project they became concerned about the environmental impact on the nearby creek and the well they and some neighbors draw their drinking water from.

"We almost thought about bailing when they put together this septic [project]," she said.

Similar concerns have ben expressed by residents in Lake St. Croix Beach and St. Mary's Point. The MPCA recently compiled a standard environmental review of the plan, and the process gathered more than 30 public comments.

"We assessed those comments … and came to the conclusion that the project doesn't have significant environmental effects," said Kevin Kain, MPCA's manager of the project's environmental review.

Last week, the MPCA's Citizens' Board reviewed the project and determined there was no need for further research. By a 6-1 vote, the board granted a permit allowing the city to move forward. It also rejected a request by several cities for a contested case hearing, which would have required a judge to review the project issues and decide whether it should proceed.

As for the concern over the Indian mounds, the board passed an amendment requiring Afton officials to seek perspectives from the Minnesota's State Historical Preservation Office and the Indian Affairs Council before issuing a construction permit.

Moorse said the project is expected to begin this fall.

Blair Emerson is a Twin Cities freelance writer. Her e-mail address is