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Fox River cleanup is talk of the town, but what about restoration?
Community projects often forgotten in midst of Fox River cleanup
By Monique Balas
Green Bay News-Chronicle

With the public eye focused on a newly released $400 million cleanup plan, the distinction between the cleanup of the Fox River and smaller-scale restoration efforts might seem as murky as the river's PCB-contaminated sediment.

Gov. Jim Doyle's July 28 announcement of the Record of Decision, a blueprint of the cleanup efforts, is separate from plans to address the area's ecological damage. Compensation from the paper companies that polluted the river even flow into different funds.

"Remediation is the cleanup of the PCBs; restoration is restoring the resources that have been injured by the PCBs," explained Colette Charbonneau, restoration coordinator for the regional U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "The more cleanup you get, the less restoration that's needed. It's kind of all intertwined."

Slowly but surely, efforts to help increase the fish population in the river and bay, protect wetlands from development and restore public recreation areas are moving forward.

Charbonneau is one of five voting members of the Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council, an intergovernmental group that distributes money in the Natural Resources Damage Assessment fund for projects it selects. The state Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Oneida and Menominee tribes and the state of Michigan are represented on the council, which is in its first year.

Money paid by the companies comes out of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment, or NRDA. The federal Superfund law requires compensation to the public for damaged resources.

"There are two responsibilities under Superfund law," said Greg Hill, chief of the DNR's water quality modeling section. "The NRDA is to identify the injuries to the resources caused by, in this case, the PCBs, and to compensate the environment and the public for those injuries while the PCBs have been there. And that is done by restoring or replacing or acquiring resources or properties that will compensate for those injuries."

The amount determined for restoration is negotiated based on the amount of damage done.

"It's not necessarily a 50-50 split (between cleanup and restoration)," Hill said.

When the Trustee Council met June 3, it approved 17 project proposals funded through an interim agreement between former Appleton Papers and NCR mills. The companies have provided about $9 million for the projects. The compensation is part of a $40 million down payment over four years to be divided among cleanup and restoration.

The paper companies' total amount of ecological damage compensation to the public has been estimated at up to $333 million.

Some of the money is set aside for certain areas, such as land acquisition, watershed restoration and recreational projects, but individual projects are selected on a case-by-case basis.

A settlement with Georgia-Pacific is awaiting approval by a judge, and more settlements will come as paper companies negotiate their compensation.

The council is looking into 54 new project proposals, according to Tom Nelson, a member of the Restoration Technical Representative Team. The projects could be selected when more negotiations are finalized.

What projects are funded?

For the Oneida Tribe, the term restoration means more than the prospect of eating PCB-free fish from a new lake. It means the restoration of their old ways of life, some of which have been abandoned since the onset of fish-consumption advisories.

The design of Lake Withing, a 40-acre, $100,000 project, was one of the 17 projects approved by the trustee council in June.

"We want to give back to the community something they've lost because of PCBs in the Duck Creek Fishery," Nelson said. "We're creating this lake to give tribes fish that won't be contaminated with PCBs."

The tribe - and Native Americans across the country - have suffered health problems as they are forced away from their traditional diet, Nelson said. But, Nelson said, "probably the biggest thing the tribe has lost is cultural loss from not having that fishery."

"The annual fish runs were great family gatherings, clan gatherings; there were ceremonies surrounding this, catching fish, starting the fish season," he said. "And all these things have been lost because they don't have the fishery to use."

Nelson, who is helping to coordinate the project, said public input will play a major role in determining the lake's location on the reservation. A design is expected to be ready in three years, and the lake would require about two years of construction.

Then "it's going to probably take from five to 10 years for this lake to come into balance with the surrounding environment," Nelson said.

The Oneidas are developing a wetlands project to help restore the Duck Creek Watershed.

The project, budgeted for another $100,000, is funded by the Appleton Papers-NCR interim agreement.

"As the waters clean up, we need to improve the flow, which would improve the fishery in Duck Creek," Nelson said. "One leads to another." Many restoration projects are partnerships between organizations and the community.

Projects require a certain amount of public input before they are implemented, and Nelson said one of the council's goals is to improve that process.

Eradicating invasive loosestrife is a $100,000 joint project between Fish and Wildlife Service and the UW-Extension, Charbonneau said.

"It takes over the wetlands and chokes out native plants," she said. "It's not used by fish or wildlife as a food source or to hide in. It just chokes everything out."

Restoring the Cat Island Chain in the bay of Green Bay is a joint, $300,000 project between Fish and Wildlife, the city of Green Bay, the DNR and the University of Wisconsin-Sea Grant.

The DNR and Fish and Wildlife are working on numerous fisheries projects in the river and bay to examine the population and possibly restore the population of Great Lakes spotted musky, yellow perch and lake sturgeon.

"We're trying to look at the habitat and see if it's there, and if it's not, what it will take to build the habitat," Charbonneau said.

A decreased yellow perch population has puzzled local scientists, fishermen and conservationists, Hill said. "It's such a valued resource both ecologically and for human use. No one in the Great Lakes has been able to identify what the population declines are (caused by)," he said. "It's probably a combination of zebra mussels (and) white perch."

The application process

Any person or organization can propose an idea to the trustees. A proposal will be considered as long as it meets necessary criteria.

Projects that would restore, rehabilitate or help in the recovery of an injured resource would be considered by the council for funding.

"We see if the project is a priority, draft a proposal and bring it to the technical team, which reviews and ranks proposals, and they figure out which ones are highest priority and give those to the Trustee Council to decide whether to implement or not," Charbonneau said. "Right now, it's taking a long time (to select projects). It's a brand-new process.

"We have a criteria that projects will be ranked higher if it comes out of a planning document that's already gone through public review," she said, "because then we'd know the public's seen it, they've commented on it."

The Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust is one group anxiously awaiting council approval for its proposal. The nonprofit, Appleton-based organization proposed an approximately $170,000 project to acquire land that is home to endangered species.

The area is in the town of Scott and the town of Green Bay, and is loosely referred to as Red Banks.

Some of the plants have been there for thousands of years, said Leslie Taylor, program director with NEW Land Trust.

"It's a really special area ecologically," she said.

Thriving in the area is an ecosystem of rare plants, including the dwarf lake iris, a unique deep blue or purple wildflower that grows only near the shores of the northern Great Lakes. Another rare species of plant, known as alvar, lives there, too.

"We've known about (the plants) for a while, but we haven't seen how we could protect those," Taylor said. "(The NRDA partnership) seems to be an opportunity for us to help protect those species of plant communities that were identified a number of years ago as being special.

"For us, preserving that land is part of the bigger area to restore the ecosystem that was damaged by PCBs," she said.

Taylor worries that the area, most of which centers on the watershed of Gilson Creek in the town of Green Bay, will eventually be purchased and developed.

"There's so much residential development in that area of the county that there's nothing to stop anybody from turning that into housing lots.

(People) might not realize what a special area that is," Taylor said.

Taylor said her proposal was submitted just before the June 3 meeting, so she figures it has not been reviewed by the council.

She is hoping for the best, though.

"There's a lot of neat stuff in the wetlands," Taylor said. "The habitats are really at risk."

Referring to some criticism the council has faced in addressing public input and organizational efforts, Nelson said the council is working things out as it goes along.

"We're in the beginning stages and it's kind of moving slower than the public would like," he said. "There's some organizational things we're trying to fix."

People are encouraged to step forward with new ideas.

"We have an open-door policy where anytime anyone with a good idea can come in and say, for instance, 'I've got some land here that used to be farmed, used to be tilled, and I'm thinking that if I got a little bit of money, I could restore this to an intermittent stream where northern pike could live. What are the chances that I could get some funds to do that?'" Hill said.

"The more projects we have, the better pool we have to choose from," Nelson said.


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What is the NRDA?

The Natural Resource Damage Assessment, required by federal law, seeks to identify natural resources that have been harmed by contamination and ways to compensate the public for those damages.

Criteria for measuring damages:

1. Cost of restoring, rehabilitating, replacing or acquiring the equivalent natural resource

2. Decreased value of resources pending recovery

3. Reasonable cost of assessing those damages

NRDA goals include:

- Improving aquatic habitat
- Acquiring wetlands
- Increasing fish population in the river and bay
- Enhancing recreational opportunities

Trustees involved include:

- Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
- Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin
- Michigan Attorney General
- U.S. Department of the Interior
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

N Bureau of Indian Affairs
- Department of Commerce
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
- Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin
- Michigan Department of Environmental Quality

How do they vote?

"Each government has one trustee so each has one vote. Each decision is made by consensus. The one caveat: Trustees are notified at least two weeks in advance, and of the trustees that show up, there have to be at least three present." - Tom Nelson, Oneida Tribe of Indians

What is the restoration area?

Projects addressed in the affected area include the 39-mile Lower Fox River, the 119-mile-long bay of Green Bay and the area stretching upward into the southwestern portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. It ranges through six counties in Michigan and 23 counties in Wisconsin.

What are the factors for project selection?

These factors are considered the initial screening criteria. If a proposal passes, it will be evaluated further.

- Complies with applicable laws, policies and regulations
- Addresses injured natural resources in the Lower Fox River/bay of Green Bay ecosystem
- Is technically feasible

What are PCBs?

Polychlorinated biphenyls - commonly known as PCBs - are carcinogenic, man-made compounds released by seven paper companies between 1954 and 1971. Most were released during the manufacture of carbonless copy paper coated with a PCB emulsion.

They do not break down easily and have attached to sediment in the Fox River. The compounds have been detected in birds and in the fatty tissue of fish. They have been linked to numerous health risks to humans and animals.

How many PCBs in the Fox River and bay?

The DNR estimates about 691,370 pounds of PCBs have been released into the Lower Fox River and 160,000 pounds in the bay; about 64,000 pounds remain present.

The agency estimates about 11 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment are in the river and bay.

What are the paper companies involved?

- Georgia-Pacific (formerly Fort James/Fort Howard)
- P.H. Glatfelter (formerly Bergstrom Paper)
- Chesapeake Corp. (former owner of Wisconsin Tissue Mills of Menasha but sold that to Svenska Cellulosa Aktiebolaget; the PCB liability calls itself WTM 1)
- Appleton (formerly Appleton Papers Inc.)
- NCR and Arjo Wiggins (Appleton's former owners)
- Sonoco (formerly U.S. Paper Mills Corp.)
- Riverside Paper Corp.

The proposed Georgia-Pacific settlement, if approved, would fund:
- The acquisition of a designated 30-acre parcel off a park in the Village of Allouez
- Construction of a 1,000-foot-long scenic trail along the west side of the East River (it would serve as the Allouez portion of the East River Trail Development Project)
- Construction of a 1-mile-long scenic trail along the west side of the Fox River, which will be known as the Fox River Riverwalk
- Improvement of an existing trailhead facility at the north end of the East River Parkway Trail in the town of Bellevue
- Acquisition of river frontage along the East River and construction of a 12-foot-wide pedestrian/bike trail in the town of Bellevue

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