Fox River and Bay Cleanup
Why is a cleanup needed?
The river and bay bottom sediments are badly contaminated with thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals called PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), which continue to flow downstream and spread throughout Green Bay and Lake Michigan. These PCBs threaten public and wildlife health.
Where did the PCBs come from?
PCBs are toxic oils which were used in the ink on the back of carbonless copy paper. When two companies made the paper, and five others recycled it, they dumped PCB chemical wastes into the Fox River and Green Bay, some as recently as the early 1990s. The companies were NCR Corporation, Appleton Papers, Georgia Pacific (formerly Fort James Corporation), P.H. Glatfelter (formerly Bergstrom Paper), Wisconsin Tissue Mills (owned by Chesapeake Corporation), Sonoco (formerly U.S. Paper Mills Corporation), and Riverside Paper.
Why is the federal government involved? Shouldnít this be handled locally?
Up to 70% of all PCBs entering Lake Michigan came ultimately from the Fox River, which still has approximately 67,000 pounds of the toxic chemicals in its bottom muds. Another 69,000 pounds of PCBs sit in hotspots in the extreme southern end of Green Bay. The federal government has a duty to protect us and the interests of the four states around Lake Michigan, and all the areas far downwind of the river and bay. We pay federal taxes for this service. The State of Wisconsin and local governments have had 30 years to address the problem, without success, so we have welcomed the federal push for action, and the tens of millions the EPA has provided for local research and the $4 million in clean-up planning funds provided by the federal government.
Isnít it safer to leave the PCBs alone?
The PCBs are NOT safely buried in the river. They are moving downstream with an average of 300-500 pounds escaping into Green Bay and Lake Michigan each year. The PCBs in the lower Bay are also in pockets moving north along the East Shore to Door County. Most PCBs sit in the river and bay mud fairly close to the surface, which means floods, storms, or dam failures could send huge quantities downstream in large bursts, if we don't get the PCBs out first.
Wonít Nature take care of this?
Right now, thousands of people around Lake Michigan are exposed to extremely unsafe levels of PCBs. They need immediate health protection and rapid clean-up of the source of PCBs -- the Fox River and Green Bay. Scientists say if nothing is done it may be more than 100 years before the PCBs are dispersed enough to protect local health. But this dispersal isnít a good idea either. It sends many PCBs by air to arctic and mountain regions where the cold air causes the PCB pollution to settle out, concentrate and endanger people and wildlife in those regions. PCBs are man-made and donít break down easily. Nature canít solve this problem alone.
Wonít dredging stir up the PCBs and make the problem worse?
If dredging is done with the right equipment and careful operators, itís our best option for removing PCBs from the river and eliminating future PCB releases. Modern hydraulic dredges act like vacuum cleaners that suck the PCBs into a long hose attached to a treatment center on land. Contrary to claims by the paper companies, the dredges do NOT operate like garden rototillers, so stirring is minimal. Hydraulic dredges have been used in many places worldwide to remove such hotspots. Itís important to start early in the dredging season to finish the project before the river freezes, and to remove all, not just part, of each hotspot.
Isnít it safer to just cap the PCBs in place?
A cap is only a temporary fix. In an active, eroding river system it would be only a matter of time before the capping material (of sand or rock) wore away, especially in major storms and flooding. Flowing water is powerful. In addition, caps could make many important parts of the river more shallow, potentially interfering with boat traffic. As the caps eroded, they would flow downstream to fill up the shipping channels and marinas, creating more need for expensive dredging and disposal projects. Wildlife habitat would be destroyed by artificial capping materials, and much of the river would be an artificial drainage ditch, rather than a natural river. In contrast, dredging would be a permanent one-time solution, leaving a natural deeper river bottom and reducing the costs for harbor dredging downstream.
Who will pay for the cleanup? Shouldnít this be a shared responsibility?
We feel the polluters should pay. Taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize mistakes by private corporations. Some people argue that "we all benefited from the economic presence of the paper mills, therefore we should all pay" --- but that could be said about any business enterprise anywhere. It would require innocent taxpayers who had no knowledge of and no say in corporate decisions to be liable for those decisions --- clearly a dangerous idea. In this case, the polluters profited by avoiding pollution control costs, and they've dragged their feet for 30 years, allowing the PCBs to spread over a huge region, poisoning millions of people. The corporations should be held accountable for the results.
The companies didnít do anything illegal. Why should they be penalized?
Itís never legal to poison your neighbors. This is a "common law" standard which underlies our whole legal system. The 7 paper mills dumped their private chemical wastes into our public water supply. This was not an accident, it was a deliberate ongoing choice. They had a responsibility to identify their chemical wastes and understand the health effects of their actions. Many times over the last 45 years citizens publicly protested the mill pollution, but their concerns were ignored by the corporations. Why should these citizens be required now to pay for the cleanup? The corporations have lobbied effectively against specific health and environmental standards. But the lack of specific PCB standards in past years doesnít change the underlying common law standard.
What about local jobs? Wonít cleanup costs force the paper mills to close?
The polluters are trying to frighten their workers with this threat, but itís a false argument. The clean-up costs would be shared among 7 major corporations, with 98% of the responsibility falling on the 5 largest. These are multinational corporations with worldwide financial assets in the tens of billions of dollars. They can afford sharing the estimated $400 million to $1.2 billion cost of the cleanup and compensation, especially when those costs can be spread over several decades, just like a home mortgage. For example, Fort Howard Corporation and James River Corporation spent $500 million just on their merger to form Fort James Corporation (to be repeated by the Georgia-Pacific buyout of Fort James Corp. recently). Several of the corporations are investing hundreds of millions overseas in other countries. But they owe us a PCB clean-up first. The corporations canít escape their liability for the Fox River by leaving. Since they have a large financial and staff investment here, they might as well continue making money by operating the local mills. They gain nothing by shutting down, except to lose their source of income.
What does Clean Water Action Council want for the River and Bay?
We support a strong dredging and cleanup plan which meets a final PCB cleanup standard fully protective of public health and wildlife. High level PCBs should be broken down using a new technology such as thermal desorption to concentrate the PCBs, followed by gas-phase detoxification similar to the proprietary Eco-Logic process, then upland landfilling of the residue. Special measures to control leakage, gases and volatilization into the air must be required at landfills accepting the residue. PCB wastewaters and PCB landfill leachate should not be sent through public sewage treatment plants, but rather through special separate facilities designed to detoxify the PCBs. Sediments should not be shipped to other areas of the state or country. We would prefer a negotiated settlement with the polluters, but only if our other concerns are met. If a good settlement canít be reached, we support an EPA Superfund enforcement action. We also support the Natural Resources Damage Assessment by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the compensation and major wildlife habitat enhancement benefits provided under this program.
With landfills, arenít you just moving the problem from one place to another?
The situation we have now is exactly like a Superfund hazardous waste dump with a major river flowing through the middle of it, carrying toxics into a Great Lake used by millions of people for fishing, drinking and swimming. By removing the PCBs from the river and lower bay, public and wildlife exposures will be greatly reduced over a wide area. It is true that landfills are not perfect, but if citizens demand it, we should be able to get special additional engineering controls at the landfills to specifically limit any PCB leakage from the site. The Town of Holland landfill site has more than 100 feet of natural clay beneath it, so groundwater supplies should be safe. If we require detoxification of the worst sediments, the risks should be reduced further. The landfill should be viewed as a long-term containment and storage system until better and more complete detoxification treatments become available (and this means the longterm liability at the landfills should remain with the polluters, not taxpayers.)
Wonít this take forever? Is it realistic to expect weíll ever have a clean river?
Multiple dredging crews working on several parts of the river and lower bay at once could achieve major progress in less than 10 years, if the public support is strong enough to push for rapid action. If we act soon, we could enjoy much cleaner fish and healthier wildlife in our lifetimes. Of course, we will need to ensure that NEW pollution sources arenít recontaminating the river and ruining all our hard work. Weíll never achieve a perfectly clean system, but we can get close if we make the effort. Our children and grandchildren will certainly enjoy many benefits.
Dredging the river and lower bay hotspots will clean up more than the PCBs, it will remove millions of cubic yards of sediments containing hundreds of other toxic chemicals (dioxins, furans, mercury, lead, arsenic, cadmium, pesticides, etc.) as well as excess fertilizer runoff of phosphorus and nitrogen. River and bay water quality should improve by several measures. The wildlife habitat enhancements required by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service will also provide wonderful benefits.
How can we be sure this will be done right?
Citizens need to stay involved, come to the public hearings, read the proposals, write letters, and keep an eye on the various governments and corporations working on the clean up. Clean Water Action Council received a grant to hire technical advisors who helped us evaluate the details of the proposed cleanup plan. Their observations are posted on this webpage. We all have a right to demand that proven, competent contractors do the work under strict government oversight.
PCBs Accumulate --- PCBs have spread from the paper mills and are found throughout Northeast Wisconsin, in the air, soil, water, wildlife and virtually everywhere sampled, but the most concentrated hotspots of PCBs are found in the river and hotspots in the extreme southern end of the bay. Fish, ducks and other wildlife act like vacuum cleaners. They gather PCBs along with the smaller fish and insects they eat. This gathering causes the PCBs to build up to dangerous levels in the fish and ducks, then people are poisoned when they eat the fish and ducks. Even small levels of PCBs in the water can concentrate to high levels in fish.
PCBs Threaten Public Health --- PCBs act like hormones in our bodies, disrupting several systems at once. In particular, PCBs can affect our babies as they develop in the womb, changing the way their reproductive organs grow, changing their behavior, and lowering their intelligence. (see Human Health Effects) In addition, PCBs have been correlated with miscarriages, premature births, birth defects, weakened immune systems and increased liver, skin, brain, and breast cancers in exposed people. PCBs are linked to heart disease, diabetes, auto-immune diseases, liver damage, mood disorders, Parkinson's disease and reproductive/sexual effects. PCBs may also damage our hearing, by affecting the structure of the inner ear. Recent research suggests that the high mercury levels in the Fox River may multiply health damages when combined with PCBs. (Toxic mercury also contaminates the fish and ducks in our area.)
PCBs Donít Break Down Easily --- PCBs are so persistent in our bodies that scientists estimate that after PCB exposure it would require 7 generations of women breastfeeding their daughters before the final daughter would be free of PCBs. In fact, an adult womanís easiest method of reducing her own PCB levels is to breastfeed and pass the PCBs to her baby --- after she has already passed PCBs to the baby as it develops in her womb --- a serious health concern for the baby.
Fish-eaters Have High Cancer Risks --- Anglers eating fish from Little Lake Butte des Morts, downstream on the Fox River, and into Green Bay and Lake Michigan face extremely high cancer risks over their lifetime, according to the Wisconsin Dept. of Health, the state DNR, the U.S. EPA and other health researchers. The U.S. EPA estimates that Great Lakes fish consumption will result in 38,255 extra cancers in the Great Lakes region over 70 years, primarily because of PCB contamination.(Reference: "A Risk Analysis of Twenty-six Environmental Problems," U.S. EPA, Region V, Dec. 1991)
Birds are Suffering --- Fish-eating birds on Green Bay have some of the highest rates of birth defects and reproductive failure in the entire Great Lakes region. (Cormorants, Terns, Herons, Eagles, Mergansers and Gulls.) Blackbirds on the Bay show abnormal sex ratios. Even though Bald Eagle populations have risen throughout Wisconsin, the eagles nesting along the Fox River and Green Bay have had less success and some chicks have deformed beaks.
Fish are Suffering --- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has found that Fox River Walleyes have a high rate of tumors which have been stimulated by PCBs. And though expensive stocking programs have continued for decades, government agencies have been unable to restore natural breeding Lake Trout in Lake Michigan. Researchers at University of Wisconsin confirm that Lake Trout hatchlings can be killed by PCBs and this may be a factor in their decline. In fact, it's possible that several of the species of Lake Michigan fish which went extinct in the 1950s and 1960s disappeared because of pollution. Now, Yellow Perch have abnormal sex ratios which threatens their survival.
Animals are Suffering --- Certain fish-eating mammals, such as mink and otter, are especially sensitive to PCB exposure. Biologists have noted that local populations of these animals seem unusually low, given that we have good habitat for them. High rates of spine deformities have been found in Fox River frogs by University of Wisconsin researchers.
People are Breathing PCBs --- PCBs rise off the surface of Green Bay, contaminate our air, and blow downwind over Canada and the Great Lakes (spreading toxic contamination over those areas) according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin Sea Grant Institute and U.S. EPA. People in Northeast Wisconsin are breathing elevated PCB levels daily.
PCBs are Absorbed through the Skin --- Monkey studies show that in 24 hours they absorb between 15.2 and 33.9 percent of the PCBs spread on their skin. Guinea pigs absorbed between 33.2 and 55.6 percent. The researchers concluded that "PCBs can be rapidly and excessively absorbed through the skin." This raises concerns for people swimming in the river and bay, and for people handling PCB contaminated sediments or topsoil from the area.
PCBs Harm Our Economy and Quality of Life --- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that, locally, PCBs cost the currently active sport-fishing industry $333 million, as a lower-bound conservative estimate, for past and future damages. This doesnít include the financial losses caused by thousands of people who no longer fish or never started because of the PCBs. It also doesnít include the jobs lost by commercial fishing and charter fishing families in the Bay and Lake Michigan, or the market value of the millions of pounds of fish which couldnít be sold due to PCB contamination. We have one of the richest fisheries and waterfowl hunting sites in the Great Lakes region and much of it is inedible. Other costs: taxpayers and shippers have spent tens of millions of dollars to dredge and contain PCB contaminated sediments from the Green Bay Harbor shipping channel. If not for the contamination, these topsoils could have been landspread again to enrich our farms. Instead, Brown County taxpayers are stuck cleaning up and maintaining expensive dredge spoil sites. Green Bay area communities are spending billions of dollars (with financing costs) to pipe drinking water from Kewaunee and Lake Michigan because the Fox River and Bay are unsafe. Natural swimming beaches are closed, forcing communities to build and maintain multi-million dollar artificial swimming pools and water theme parks. Increased medical, education and social costs could be very high due to PCB health effects. Our quality of life is degraded as we realize we live in one of the most toxic areas in the country.
CONTENT BY: Rebecca Leighton Katers
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