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
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
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.
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
"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
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