$400 million plan drives PCB cleanup
7 paper companies to share cost of Fox River project
By Peter Rebhahn
Green Bay Press Gazette
State and federal regulators will move ahead with a cleanup
of the PCB-contaminated Fox River in what could become
the largest cleanup of a polluted river ever attempted
in North America.
But the cleanup, the stigma and the inconvenience of
a toxic urban fishery and, more importantly, the human
health risk it poses, will be with Brown County residents
for decades even under the agencies’ most optimistic scenario:
A completed cleanup of the river from Little Rapids downstream
to the bay of Green Bay in seven to eight years.
And fish in the 7-mile stretch of river between the De
Pere dam and the bay will continue to contain unacceptably
high PCB levels for at least 20 years after the project
The federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Wisconsin
Department of Natural Resources released the cleanup plan
Monday at a news conference in Green Bay. It endorses
a cleanup that differs from one proposed in 2001 in only
a few particulars - most notably a determination to dredge
a PCB hot spot in the bay of Green Bay at the mouth of
the Fox River, discovered in a round of sediment samples
that the DNR took last summer.
But the biggest change from the 2001 plan appears to
be the overall estimated cleanup costs to be paid by seven
responsible paper companies, which the agencies now peg
at $400 million, or 30 percent more than the $308 million
estimated in 2001 - an increase regulators attributed
to higher projected dredging and landfill costs.
Dividing those costs among the paper companies will be
a challenge. Bruce Baker, cleanup plan manager for the
DNR, said negotiations over specific costs will be a very
dynamic process. He said the DNR will meet with each independently
to get a sense of where they stand, then meet with them
as a group to work out the details.
Based on less formal discussions so far, he said, the
department added up the percentage that each company thought
it owed "and it didn’t come out to 100."
Jerrie Walsh has watched the Fox River her entire life,
living in a house that her great-grandfather built. "It’s
a good idea to clean it up, but where are they going to
get the money?" Walsh asked. "The paper mills
will pass the costs on to us. We’ll pay more for toilet
Tim Dantoin, a spokesman for the paper companies’ Fox
River Group declined to comment Monday. "We’ll have
to digest the document first," he said.
Craig Peterson, a spokesman for Arjo Wiggins Appleton,
which kept the bulk of the cleanup liability of Appleton
Papers before a recent employee buyout, said he was pleased
to hear state officials say they intended to work cooperatively
with the companies.
"We’d encourage the governor to bring all the parties
together immediately," Peterson said. "The paper
companies should know what the cost is going to be at
the end of the day so they can go on with the business
of making paper."
EPA Region 5 Administrator Tom Skinner said it "remains
to be seen" how regulators will go about negotiating
liability among the responsible companies for costs of
the cleanup, which he said would move forward with or
without the companies’ cooperation.
"We’re committed to doing the project. We’re committed
to keeping it moving," Skinner said. "We’ll
cross that bridge when we come to it. But we’re confident
that, ultimately, the paper companies are going to come
up with the money."
"This may be one of the largest, most complex and
difficult projects in the nation, but we will get it done
and we will get it done right," Gov. Jim Doyle said
at a news conference in Green Bay.
The decision closes a chapter in a story that began in
1972 when the DNR began its investigation of polychlorinated
biphenyls, or PCBs, in the Fox River.
But the story’s final chapter - a worry-free fish fry
of fresh-caught walleye at Voyageur Park in De Pere -
is still years away.
"I wouldn’t start the fire," said Baker.
David Howard Jr. of Green Bay knows what it means to
fish the Fox River for sport but not for food. "I
fish about five times a week," he said after Monday’s
EPA-DNR announcement. "Here or in downtown Green
Bay or at Voyageur Park in De Pere. But, no, I don’t eat
And Howard isn’t alone.
"I like to catch them, but I just throw them back,"
said 24-year-old Josh Schindel of Green Bay. "It’s
relaxing. I’ll catch a sheephead, white bass, now and
then an occasional walleye."
"I fish for walleye in the spring, but I don’t ever
eat them," said Pat Gilson of De Pere. "I’d
have to be convinced before I’d eat them."
But Gilson said the solution isn’t as cut and dried as
some might think. "It’s really a Catch-22,"
he said. "You need the water cleaned up, but also
we need the industry."
Reaction from environmentalists ran the gamut. "The
Sierra Club welcomes this decision," said Jennifer
Feyerherm, a toxics specialist for the Sierra Club’s Great
Lakes Program. "It feels like the light at the end
of the tunnel started shining today."
But Rebecca Katers, who directs the Clean Water Action
Council of Northeast Wisconsin, said regulators had weakened
the plan they issued two years ago by leaving the door
open to the possibility of capping instead of dredging
some river sediments.
"We should not be leaving this material in the river,"
Katers said, adding that the proposed cleanup standard
of 1 ppm is inadequate to protect human health.
"They’re leaving decades of contamination for future
generations to get exposed to when the have the technology
to get it out right away," Katers said.