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Great Lakes Article:

PCB capping debated as long-term solution
By Paul Brinkmann
Green Bay Press-Gazette
Published November 20, 2006

Capping dangerous PCB chemicals in the Fox River would accelerate the river cleanup, but experts debate whether the caps can be considered a permanent solution.

State and federal officials are promoting a new, cheaper plan to leave more than 25 percent of the polychlorinated biphenyl pollution in the river more than the original plan called for. Some PCBs in the river would be capped or covered with gravel, sand and stone.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the state Department of Natural Resources and paper companies involved in the cleanup have used the word "permanence" to describe the new cleanup plan.

But two scientists said in interviews last week caps are not permanent features. Caps could be damaged in a storm or by a boat many years later. The Fox River would always have special restrictions for dredging and construction because of the caps.

"The word permanent for anything we do, including landfills, is equally inappropriate. Permanent is a public relations word, as far as I'm concerned," said Dan Reible, professor of environmental engineering at University of Texas.

Dredging and capping

Capping is just one part of the cleanup plan, but the state and federal governments have proposed relying more on caps. Most of the PCB pollution, three-quarters, would still be removed from the river and landfilled under the emerging cleanup plan.

PCBs are manmade chemicals that were discharged into the river from 1957 to 1971 in the production and recycling of carbonless paper. They're suspected of causing cancer and are linked to birth defects in mammals and fish-eating birds and to reproductive problems in humans. Capping some pollution could mean fish in the river that are currently contaminated may be safe to eat faster than if all the PCBs were dredged. But the caps would require constant monitoring.

A spokesman for the EPA, Mick Hans, said the agency considers capping permanent only because it would require paper companies to establish a fund for ongoing maintenance.

New technology

Greg Hill, the state's chief of sediment management, said caps have been used in other cleanup projects. The oldest example was put in the Duwamish River near Seattle in 1992.

"The experience is that they're intact. It seems permanent to me," Hill said.

Another expert, Peter deFur, part-time associate professor of environmental studies with Virginia Commonwealth University, has been hired by a local environmental group, Clean Water Action Council, to examine the Fox River plans. He also said he believes caps are not a permanent solution.

"With capping, you're literally just covering it up. The PCBs aren't going anywhere, and they're not going to decay," deFur said.

Long term vs. permanent

Georgia-Pacific Corp. has been promoting the use of capping as a way to speed up the cleanup process. They've sent out press releases and information packages. The corporation is one of seven paper companies responsible for the cost of the cleanup. The additional capping would shave about $190 million off the cleanup costs, which were once estimated at more than $500 million.

"You hesitate to use the word permanent, but it (capping) is a long-term solution," said Paul Montney, Georgia-Pacific's director of remediation. "Even if there was damage to a cap, it would not result in large-scale contamination of the entire river again."

Reible is has studied methods to clean up contaminated sediment. He helped the EPA develop guidelines for capping of pollution in natural waters. He also evaluated capping and dredging technologies for the Fox River.

He said the key to an effective cleanup of polluted river sediment is finding the right balance between dredging and capping.

Cleanup costs

The announcement of a much cheaper option has also raised suspicion on the part of environmental groups that capping is being promoted because of the lower price tag.

According to EPA documents, some areas can't safely be dredged because of unstable riverbanks or docks and obstructions, while pollution is deeply buried in other spots and spread thinly in other areas. Under those circumstances the government considers capping more effective than dredging.

"It doesn't do anyone any good to spend money on something that doesn't address the problem. Almost always, dredging leaves a residual behind anyway," Reible said.


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