Long Road to River Recovery

  • Aerial view of industry along the Fox River. Photo by Great Lakes United.

One of the rivers that flows into Lake Michigan is polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site…an environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up, and some environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


One of the rivers that flows into the Great Lakes (Lake Michigan) is
polluted so badly that it’s being treated much like a Super Fund site –an
environmental disaster. It’ll be decades before it’s cleaned up. And some
environmentalists think it might never be cleaned up properly. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:

(Sound of fish splash)

It’s late at night. The moon’s out. And the fish are flopping on the Fox
River. In downtown Green Bay, Wisconsin, Robert Hageman and a few of his
friends have been fishing. A couple of the guys are bragging about the big
fish they caught. But they’re not taking any home with them tonight.

LG: “Had any luck?” RH: “Yeah, I caught 23 fish.”
LG: “And wwhat did you do with them? RH: “Let ’em right back.” LG: “why?” RH: “Because it’s dirty. Fox River’s dirty.”
LG: “What have you heard about the Fox River?” RH: “The fish ain’t good for you. They can’t hurt you, but they ain’t good for you.
(friends in background say “PCBs, man.”) “yeah.”
LG: “What do you know about PCBs?
RH: “I don’t know nothing about it. That’s why I ain’t eatin’ them.” (all laugh)

Hageman and his friends are right when they say there are PCBs in the Fox
River. But apparently they haven’t heard that eating fish from the river
probably can hurt you in the long run. There are 60-thousand pounds of
PCBs, or poly chlorinated byphenyls, in the 39 mile run of the Fox
River. Of that, 50-thousand pounds – that’s 25 tons – is in the sediment of
the last seven mile stretch just before the river flows into Green Bay and
on into the rest of Lake Michigan. It’s that final stretch where Hageman
and his friends have been fishing.

The Environmental Protection Agency says seven paper mills along the Fox
River are the likely polluters. The EPA says PCBs were produced as a
by-product of the paper manufacturing process, and from the 1950s to the 1970s
they were dumped into the river. Now, the agency intends to make those
mills pay for cleaning up the contaminants.

Dennis Hultgren works for Appleton Papers, and is a spokesperson for a group
that represents the seven companies. Hultgren says the paper mills want to
clean up the pollution. But they don’t want to pay more than they have to.

“What we want to do is make sure that the money that we do spend
is spent wisely and it does the most environmental good for the region. And
so, we have one chance to do it right and we want to do it right the first

The paper mills have been working closely with government agencies to try to
determine where the PCBs are concentrated and how best to clean up the
pollution. Some of the companies have spent millions of dollars on tests in
the river. Just recently, Hultgren’s firm offered 40-million dollars… ten-million dollars a year for four years… for data collection and preliminary clean-up tests. The government agencies praised the decision and some environmental groups voiced their approval. But a local grassroots group, the Clean Water Action Council of Northeast Wisconsin, does not approve. Rebecca Katers is with the council and says it’s a delay tactic by the paper mill companies.

“It makes the company look generous. But, in fact, they should be doing this anyway. They should have done this ten years ago.”

Giving the money now, Katers says, only manages to delay legal action
against the company for four more years. Besides, she says, while
40-million dollars might seem like a lot of money, the estimated clean-up
could cost as much as 30 times that amount.

The Clean Water Action Council says this money and the government’s
willingness to accept it are representative of the cozy relationship the
companies seem to have with regulators. But Katers says the state and
federal agencies are forgetting about the people who live here. She
bristles when she hears the government agencies talk about how close they
are to the paper mills.

“They talked at the announcement about ongoing discussions they
have on a daily basis with the paper industries on this issue. But, they
haven’t met once face-to-face with the public. They haven’t held a public
discussion or debate on this issue.”

And it appears there won’t be many opportunities in the future. Although
the Fox River is not a Superfund site, the EPA is generally following the
process used for Superfund sites. The EPA says that means the public can
submit comments in writing. But there won’t be a lot of public discussion
until the EPA actually has a proposed plan. Katers thinks the people
should have a voice a lot earlier in the process.

But, the paper mills’ representative, Dennis Hultgren says it’s better to
let the experts work first.

“It’s complicated. For the normal citizen, it’s going to be very difficult to comment on it because they’re going to be looking at the technical merits
of their comments. And a general citizen, not having been involved, it’s going to be very difficult to have germane comments.”

The companies say they’ve been studying and testing and they’ve found
disturbing the sediment by trying to remove it proves that the PCBs should
be left in the sediment, allowed to slowly break down… a process called
natural recovery. And where there’s risk that sediment laden PCBs might
be disturbed by the river’s currents, engineered caps could be put in place.

The Clean Water Action Council says the paper mills tests were designed to
end up with that conclusion because that would be the cheaper way to deal
with the PCBs. The council wants the PCBs removed from the river and
disposed of safely… a much more expensive job.

The acting regional administrator for the USEPA, David Ullrich, says
there’ll likely be some combination of natural recovery, capping, and
removal. But, Ullrich says none of that will happen anytime soon. It’s a
big job, and it looks as though it will take up to ten years to deal with
the PCBs. And Ullrich says that’s just the beginning.

“The actual recovery of the resource, getting fish contaminant
levels down to acceptable levels and getting the PCB loadings to Green Bay
and out to Lake Michigan down, could take a longer period of time than that,
perhaps up to twenty years.”

And over that 20 year period, experts say that contamination will
naturally spread farther and farther into Green Bay and Lake Michigan.

For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, this is Lester Graham.


The Environmental Protection Agency says it could be a decade before a river that feeds Green Bay and Lake Michigan will have tons of PCBs cleaned up. And a lot longer before the river recovers from the effects of the pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports: