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Great Lakes Article:

$400 million plan drives PCB cleanup
7 paper companies to share cost of Fox River project
By Peter Rebhahn
Green Bay Press Gazette
07/29/03


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 is completed.

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 paper."

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 the fish."

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.

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