A Fox River History of PCBs.
Fox River history and Green Bay history
Fox River history and Green Bay history
 A Fox River History of PCBs
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Fox River history and Green Bay history

Fox River history and Green Bay history

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Fox River history and Green Bay history

So much has happened locally that it's hard to list just the major events. It will be obvious to any reader that the Fox River cleanup issue has been highly political and heavily lobbied.  Because the paper and insurance industries, and their lawyers, have enormous political power in Wisconsin, they've succeeded in stifling action for decades.  The news media have aided the industry.  Some of the most interesting events occurred behind closed doors and we will never know exactly what happened.   Key aspects are highlighted in bold, for emphasis.

1954 --- NCR Corporation and Appleton Paper Company began dumping PCBs into the Fox River, as a by-product of their joint production of PCB-coated carbonless copy paper.  Shortly thereafter, five other paper companies started recycling the PCB-contaminated trimmings and wastepaper originating from Appleton Paper Company, and they also began dumping PCBs into the Fox River with their wastewater.

1969-1970 --- Paper mill discharges of PCBs into the Fox River peaked.

1971 --- Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources initiated studies on the Fox River to determine the source of PCB contamination.

1971 --- Fearing lawsuits, Monsanto (the producer of the PCBs) began requiring its customers (like Appleton Papers) to sign waivers relieving Monsanto of financial liability for improper uses of the chemical, thus putting buyers on notice of possible dangers.

1971-72 --- Appleton Paper Company and NCR Corporation phased out PCB use in their carbonless paper products and began substituting several other chemicals (of questionable safety).  However, wastepaper recyclers continued to process PCB contaminated wastepapers for several decades afterward, as offices and homes gradually disposed of old files and papers.  Some companies switched to recycling only carefully selected wastepapers to avoid the PCBs.  Significant residual PCB contamination in wastepapers and some recycling plants continues to this day, in 2002.

1972 --- The federal Clean Water Act was passed, mandating improvements in wastewater treatment plants.  The standards were phased in over several years, through plant upgrades.  This helped to reduce the rate of PCB discharges from the five paper recycling companies in the late 1970s and 1980s. 

1973 --- U.S. Food and Drug Administration established a tolerance level of 5.0 parts per million (ppm) in commercially caught fish. (Though in many parts of the country it would be years before local fish were actually tested, due to the high cost.) 

1975 --- 124,000 cans of salmon from Lake Michigan were seized because of PCB contamination.

1976 --- Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act which outlawed the manufacture, sale, and distribution of PCBs except in "totally enclosed" systems, within 3 years. It was the only chemical Congress itself has ever banned. However, enclosed transformers and capacitors are STILL allowed to contain PCBs today in 2002.  Exemptions were inserted in federal and state laws to allow PCBs in recycled paper products.

1976 --- DNR released a major report on PCB contamination on the Fox River.  Fish consumption advisories were issued for the first time, warning anglers to not eat certain fish.  (Note: it took 4 years for DNR to begin warning the public.) Commercial fishermen faced increasingly tight restrictions.

1980 --- Congress passed the Superfund Law designed to provide financing for cleanup of the countryís major toxic waste sites.

1980s --- Visually, the Fox River improved dramatically as wastewater treatment plants were upgraded.  The sport fishery blossomed as water quality improved.  Ironically, this increased public exposure to PCBs through fish consumption, because the PCBs had accumulated in the river and bay sediments and sustained high levels of PCBs in the fish.

1980s --- The health standards and fish-eating advisories became more strict, as more became known about PCB health effects.  The FDA lowered the federal commercial fishing health standard to 2 ppm PCBs.   By 1985, commercial fishing for carp and other valuable species was outlawed on Green Bay. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service launched research to determine why several fish-eating birds on the Bay suffered from unusual deformities and reproductive failure.  And why several fish species developed tumors and reproductive failure.  Several of these health problems were linked to PCBs and dioxins.

1986 --- DNR started the Remedial Action Plan (RAP) process for cleaning up the Fox River and Green Bay, with several planning committees including more than 80 citizens from business, the community, academia, and agencies.   In December, Rebecca Katers, an environmental group representative, circulated a memo urging the RAP committees to support Superfund enforcement and funding for Fox River cleanup. The RAP committees listened to the industry lobbyists and rejected Superfund, saying litigation would delay cleanup for another 10 years. 

1986 --- Thompson began his first term as Governor. 

1988 --- The RAP document was finished and the implementation phase started.  Public hearings drew hundreds of local citizens enthusiastic about the plan which called for cleanup of PCB contaminated sediments in the river.

1989 --- On January 26, Governor Thompson appointed his fourth member of the Natural Resources Board, giving his appointees majority control over the seven-member Board which sets policy for the DNR.   At that time, the Board controlled hiring and firing of the DNR Secretary. 

1989 --- The DNR and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service met to discuss legal actions to enforce cleanup of the Fox River.  The DNR began investigating a possible state Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA.)  A top-level DNR Administrator, Lyman Wible, wrote to DNR Secy. Besadny, "we will need to request the Governor's approval"  before any legal action.

1990 --- An internal memo mentions the DNR administration's intent to pursue enforcement actions to recover costs of the demonstration project at Little Lake Butte des Morts, before more demonstrations would be attempted. This legal action and demonstration never occurred. 

1991 --- The RAP committees supported the formation of a new private "public interest" group called "Green Bay Waters for Tomorrow" to promote "cost-effective solutions" for river cleanup.  In the first year, this group received $150,000 from Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, $150,000 from Fort Howard Corporation, and an unknown amount from DNR.  Over the next 10 years, it received more than $1 million in funding, primarily from Fox River industrial dischargers and local governments. Later, it was renamed "Fox-Wolf Basin 2000" and claimed to represent citizen environmental interests.  Fox-Wolf Basin 2000 leaders sound much like their corporate sponsors, who oppose Superfund and NRDA enforcement actions.  They claim the PCB problem is "overblown" and direct public attention instead toward non-point land run-off pollution.  At the same time, this corporate front group denigrates legitimate citizen activists by calling them "adversarial" and "extreme," and undercuts their funding sources.

1991 --- The only active Fox River environmentalist on the RAP committees, Rebecca Katers, was removed by the DNR from the RAP implementation process because she promoted enforcement actions, the "polluter pays principle," and more aggressive RAP activities.  This left passive committees dominated by representatives of the paper industry, business, local government, and academics.. 

1991 --- The federal U.S. Environmental Protection Agency urged the DNR to join with them in a Superfund enforcement lawsuit requiring Fox River cleanup.  Ron Nicotera, head of DNR's Bureau of Endangered Resources, wrote an internal DNR memo stating, "We would be remiss to pass up an opportunity to support EPA's proposed lawsuit ... to mitigate the specific pollution concerns in the Green Bay area."  Nevertheless, the state told EPA that the state would address the issue.  DNR memos  mention an "unwillingness to get involved in a lawsuit where EPA takes the lead, but we do all the work."

1991 --- The DNR hired two NRDA experts, Tom Eggert and Peter Jopke, to help plan a state Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA).  Several Bureaus within the DNR were asked to assign staff to a team working on the issue.   In November,  the U.S. Dept. of Interior held a 2-day workshop explaining NRDA process details, attended by 26 DNR employees, including Lyman Wible. 

1991 --- The DNR held several meetings with paper industry representatives.   DNR staff expressed a reluctance to endanger their "good working relationship" with the paper industry.  (They put this in writing...)

1992 ---The DNR reassigned their NRDA staff elsewhere and cancelled all enforcement plans.  Instead, the DNR created the Fox River Coalition to pursue a "voluntary, cooperative approach."   (At this point, the DNR dropped all efforts to gain ANY compensation dollars for the public, and began to insist that DNR could only support sediment cleanup efforts, because "there's not enough money to pay for both cleanup and compensation.")   Fourteen paper industry representatives participated.   No environmental groups, conservationists or ordinary citizens were represented. (... except for the corporate front group, Fox/Wolf Basin 2000.)  No public hearing was held over the following 6 years, despite repeated and forceful requests from citizens. 

1992 --- DNR Secy. Besadny told U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that WDNR intended to "exhaust cooperative solutions" instead of pursuing an NRDA (though the Remedial Action Plan committees had already "exhausted" those solutions for 6 years by this point.)  He also stated that the DNR provides "customer service" to the paper industry and that legal confrontation and publicity should be avoided as much and for as long as possible.  (This is in writing...)

1993 --- The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service wrote to DNR Secy. Meyer, formally inviting the DNR to work with the FWS as a co-trustee in an NRDA.   DNR declined.  The FWS proceeded despite the state's lack of support.  For the next 5 years, the Governor and DNR objected and lobbied repeatedly against the federal NRDA. 

1994 --- The DNR received approval from EPA for state exemption from the federal Toxic Substances Control Act  to allow hazardous waste levels of PCBs in ordinary Wisconsin landfills.   A public hearing was held in Madison, but not in any other parts of the state where the actual PCB landfilling would occur.

1994 --- U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service publicly announced plans to start a federal NRDA. 

1994 --- Thomas Dawson, Wisconsin Public Intervenor in the Wis. Dept. of Justice, wrote to congressional members and several federal parties, urging support for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and NRDA.  He also began in-depth research of the Fox River Coalition and DNR actions on the Fox River.

1994 ---The DNR participated in Fox River Coalition press conferences and news releases congratulating themselves for the start of a river cleanup. The cleanup never happened. 

1995 --- Gov. Thompson and the Republicans in the state legislature, in a straight partyline vote, gave the Governor control over the hiring and firing of the DNR Secretary --- effectively taking DNR control away from the citizen-based Natural Resources Board. 

1995 --- Gov. Thompson and the Republicans in the state legislature, in a straight partyline vote, also abolished the Wisconsin Public Intervenor Office.  This stopped Tom Dawson's work and prevented him from advising local citizens of their rights and legal options regarding the Fox River issue.

1995 --- The DNR's budget was cut substantially, 200 staff positions were eliminated, and the DNR began a re-organization process which, over the next 2 years, dramatically shuffled staff assignments across the state. 

1995 --- After more than 3 years of preparation, the DNR dropped plans for a demonstration project to clean up Deposit A in Little Lake Butte des Morts near Neenah, after P.H. Glatfelter Company backed out of a deal to pay for part of the cleanup.  (A major portion would have been paid by state taxpayers.)  The DNR blamed citizens for "not being appreciative enough" to satisfy P.H. Glatfelter.

1996 --- Gov. Thompson and the DNR continued to formally oppose the federal NRDA, and lobby Congress and the Clinton Administration against it. 

1996 --- In November, under pressure from the state, the NRDA trustees (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, EPA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Menominee and Oneida Tribes) proposed holding negotiations to create a "Memorandum of Understanding"  (MOU) with the state and polluters to avoid legal action and work for settlement of governmental claims against the polluters.

1996 --- In December, the Service sent the MOU negotiation proposal to the state and polluters, and informed them that the Service would file its Notice of Intent to Sue on January 31 unless an agreement could be reached that included a "legal timeout" for the statute of limitations.

1996 ---The first negotiation between  parties was held December 20 and the State made several demands for state control, which the federal and tribal parties found unacceptable. The governmental parties decided to try to resolve these state control issues  before continuing negotiations with the polluters.

1997 --- Over the month of January, discussions between the Service and the state were frequent, and several drafts of a "Memorandum of Agreement" (MOA) were exchanged.

1997 --- At a meeting on January 9, negotiators made some progress at resolving differences. As late as January 28, the federal and tribal parties received another revised draft MOA from the state.

1997 --- On January 30, the Governor announced he had secretly negotiated a surprise "$10 million settlement" contract with the polluters.  His announcement came the day before the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was scheduled to formally announce the culmination of their NRDA preparation:  their Notice of Intent to sue the responsible polluters.  (The intent to sue does not prevent negotiation or voluntary settlement, it simply reserves the right to pursue legal actions if negotiations fail.) 

1997 --- The Governor issued press releases stating that the mills were "voluntarily donating $10 million to clean-up the Fox River."  Resulting media  stories emphasized the companies' generosity, though $10 million could be less than 1% of the potential total cost of clean-up.  (The Remedial Action Plan Committees had estimated the costs could range from $300 million to $1.2 billion total, depending on the clean-up extent and methods.)  The Governor did not consult with any of the federal, tribal, local government, RAP, or Fox River Coalition non-industry representatives before signing this contract.  No copies of the agreement were made available until after press releases were issued.  Prior to the media announcements, the federal and tribal parties were unaware that the Governor had been negotiating independently with the polluters. The agreement contract left the DNR vulnerable to pressures and unusual control from the polluters.  The full impacts of the agreement are still being felt. 

1997 --- At public events throughout the year, the Governor used the $10 million settlement to draw attention to his environmental leadership and criticize federal involvement. 

1997 --- The federal NRDA was delayed with a legal "time-out" (a "tolling" agreement which prevented the statute of limitations from running out) to allow the state and other agencies more time to pursue negotiations for a cleanup plan. 

1997 --- The last meeting of the Fox River Coalition was held in the summer.  The polluters then formed their own coalition, called the Fox River Group

1997 ---In the summer the EPA began talk of nominating the river for federal Superfund status, but held off another year to allow time for a negotiated settlement.  Gov. Thompson  sent a harsh and deeply critical letter to EPA and asked EPA to return to "an honest, open and respectful partnership with the State of Wisconsin."   The Governor's resistance was described as "unusual." 

1997 --- In the summer, the state and federal governments, and tribal agencies signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work together to negotiate a settlement with the polluters. 

1997 --- Fall negotiations failed. The DNR and other government agencies put an offer on the table and the paper industry walked out. 

1998 ---The Governor and the DNR aggressively lobbied all winter and spring against Superfund status. The DNR proposed to hire staff to handle public education on Fox River clean-up issues, but hiring was delayed.  Little outreach occurred until after most local governments passed resolutions against Superfund and called for delays until the "demonstration projects" were studied.   The DNR staff never explained to most local governments that the DNR did not support such delays, so the local officials believed their resolutions helped DNR. 

1998 --- After 9 years of study and political delays, the eight Great Lakes states agreed on a Great Lakes Protocol for Fish Consumption Advisories, and lowered the regional standard from the federal FDA commercial standard of 2 ppm PCBs down to .05 ppm PCBs, based on increasing evidence of PCBs' toxic potency.

1998 --- The Governor told the paper mills he would expedite the granting of permits for the demonstration projects and assist in obtaining federal permits.

1998 --- In July, EPA formally proposed the river for the National Priority List for Superfund cleanup, starting a 60 day comment period. The Governor attacked EPA saying "This is the height of Washington arrogance and we will continue to oppose the EPA's decision ... the state can do a better and more efficient job."

1998 --- On July 22, after strong public criticism of the Governor's 12 years of inaction, he leveraged a new round of negotiations in Madison between all the parties.  Federal and tribal government representatives were not informed in advance as to the true purpose of this meeting.  They thought they were meeting with the Governor, but then he excused himself to walk next door to carry their comments to the paper industry representatives who had been warned in advance and were waiting there.  Afterwards, the Governor issued press releases to the media about the progress made, and pledged additional negotiation meetings shortly.  The Governor's intervention was covered heavily by the media. 

1998 --- Over the next 2 years, EPA gave the state more than $4 million to write the Fox River cleanup plan. (Remedial Investigation/Feasibility Study - RI/FS)  The EPA allowed DNR to choose the consultant to write the plan, and DNR chose the consultant recommended by the Fox River Group of paper industries.  The consultant, Remediation Technologies, Inc. (RETEC) has a significant conflict of interest, with financial ties to the paper industry in the Fox River Valley.

1998 --- In late November, the first dredging demonstration project started at Deposit N, a PCB sediment hotspot in the Fox River, between Little Chute and Kimberly.  This project was primarily funded and controlled by the Wisconsin DNR. The river froze before they could finish.

1999 --- In the spring, the DNR went back to finish the dredging demonstration at Deposit N.

1999 --- DNR announced the first draft of the Fox River cleanup plan (RI/FS).  It was widely criticized as inadequate and EPA required a major rewrite.  In particular, EPA required DNR to examine the potential for cleaning up at least some of the PCBs in Green Bay, not just the river.

1999 --- In the fall, the Fox River Group started a second much-larger dredging demonstration project at Site 56/57 offshore from Fort James Corporation (Green Bay West Mill) --- as part of their $10 million deal with Governor Thompson.  This site had the greatest PCB concentrations of any point in the river bottom.  The river froze before they could finish, leaving high concentrations of PCB exposed to the river.

2000 --- Following a public outcry and DNR inaction in the spring, the EPA stepped in, threatened legal action, and got a consent decree signed by Fort James Corporation to finish the bungled dredging demonstration at Site 56/57.  The contractor for the Fox River Group issued a press release claiming the project had been "designed to fail."  The work was finished rapidly from September thru October, using better equipment and experienced operators, under EPA oversight.

2000 --- In October, the DNR announced a surprise final $7 million settlement with Fort James Corporation for that company's share of the state's version of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment.  No public hearing had been held on the state's overall NRDA proposal, nor on this specific agreement.  This settlement seriously and deliberately undercut the much stronger federal NRDA announced the following month.

2000 --- In November, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service completed their Natural Resource Damage Assessment and proposed a comprehensive compensation and restoration plan. Five public hearings were held. (This plan canít be finalized until the Superfund sediment cleanup Record of Decision is finalized by U.S. EPA in late 2001 or 2002.)

2000 --- George W. Bush was elected.  Citizens worry that federal leadership favoring aggressive Fox River and Green Bay cleanup will falter and the cleanup plan could be badly compromised.   It seems that now that both the EPA and DNR are controlled by Republican administrations, the federal and state agencies are working more closely together.

2001 --- In January, the Clean Water Action Council announced it had collected 10,672 signatures from residents throughout Northeast Wisconsin who support a strong Fox River and Green Bay clean up plan fully protective of public and wildlife health.

2001 --- In February, the Village of Howard objected to the $7 million settlement because it didn't fully account for all PCB damages to the village, including damage to drinking water supplies.  State Senator Gary George called on Governor McCallum to rescind the $7 million settlement.  Clean Water Action Council held a public hearing (because the state refused to) to allow citizens to comment publicly on the $7 million settlement.  All testifiers opposed it. 

2001 --- In March, the state Legislative Audit Bureau released a partial audit (at Senator George's request) which described several weaknesses in the settlement.  The Legislative Audit Committee held a brief hearing in Madison, where the new DNR Secretary, Darrell Bazzell suspended the $7 million settlement with Fort James Corporation and extended the public comment period another 60 days.

2001 --- In April, the Science and Technical Advisory Committee for the Fox River/Green Bay Remedial Action Plan publicized a letter to the DNR sharply critical of the $7 million settlement.

2001 --- On June 13, all the government agencies jointly announced a surprise $40 million partial interim settlement with NCR Corporation and Appleton Papers Inc, for 4 years for cleanup and compensation, far less than expected from these two companies.  No public hearing was held, and no details were provided concerning how the funds would be spent.  This action represented a sharp change in approach under the Bush Administration.

2001 --- In July, the Fox River Watch website was launched.

2001 --- On October 2, the government agencies announced the release of the final proposed Fox River clean up plan (RI/FS), with a 60 day public comment period set to end on January 21, 2002.  The plan is 4 times weaker than the initial RI/FS proposed in 1999.  Contrary to EPA's interest in 1999, the plan does not require any remedial work in the bay of Green Bay.

2001 --- On October 29 and 30, less than a month after the release of the massive 7 volume plan, the agencies held public hearings in Appleton and Green Bay, each attended by roughly 200-250 people.  Local citizens held rallies outside supporting cleanup.  Many people complained that the hearing schedule was rushed and the agencies hadn't allowed enough time for citizens to review the complex information in the plan.  Detailed testimony wasn't possible, because the agencies allowed only 3 minutes per speaker, in an obvious effort to stifle public input.

2001 --- In November, an engineer hired by Clean Water Action Council under the Technical Assistance Grant provided an analysis showing it was both economical and feasible to remove PCBs in Zone 2 and other hotspots in the Bay.

2001 --- In December, Appleton Paper Company released an "expert panel" proposal to simply cap all the PCB hotspots in the river with a foot of sand and gravel.  Only a small portion of the river section downstream of the DePere Dam would be capped, and the rest left exposed.  They proposed no Bay cleanup.

2001 --- In December, a toxicologist hired by Clean Water Action Council under the Technical Assistance Grant provided an analysis showing the agencies' proposed cleanup plan would not meet its stated goals, and would not protect public health or wildlife.  He recommended a sediment cleanup standard 4 times more strict (.25 ppm PCBs) and the cleanup of PCBs in Zone 2 of the Bay.

2002 --- In July, the Intergovernmental Partners (Wisconsin, federal government, and tribes) announced a a new surprise final NRDA settlement with Georgia-Pacific Corporation (Fort James) for $8.5 million, plus land of undetermined value.

2002 --- In August, Clean Water Action Council filed a federal lawsuit seeking to intervene to increase the final NRDA settlement with G-P, alleging that the amount was too low, was allocated to the wrong kinds of projects, and was premature (it should have come after the cleanup Record of Decision and overall Restoration Plan).

2002 --- In September, the Intergovernmental Partners released the final proposed Restoration Plan for public comment.

2002 --- In November, a new Governor and new Attorney General were elected in Wisconsin, and a new Secretary was appointed to run the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

2003 --- In January, the Intergovernmental Partners announced a partial Record of Decision for the upstream half of the Fox River (from Little Lake Butte des Morts to Little Rapids), and held one public informational meeting in Appleton to answer public questions.  The agencies ignored all the comments provided by Clean Water Action Council's technical advisors, and proposed roughly the same project proposed the year before.  The cleanup will not protect public health or wildlife.

2003 --- On the same night as the Appleton meeting, the Intergovernmental Partners announced a new surprise partial $4 million settlement from Georgia-Pacific Corporation, to be used for detailed sediment characterization and remedial design for the downstream half of the Fox River.

More to come...  The agencies claim that the second half of the Record of Decision, for the lower part of the Fox River and Green Bay, will be released in June, 2003.

(Click here for an overall history of PCBs, including background on Monsanto.)

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Fox River history and Green Bay history
Fox River Watch is a project of

Clean Water Action Council
1270 Main Street, Suite 120, Green Bay, WI 54302 
Phone: 920-437-7304, Fax: 920-437-7326 
E-mail:  CleanWater@cwac.net

Fox River history and Green Bay history
Fox River history and Green Bay history Fox River history and Green Bay history
Fox River history and Green Bay history Fox River history and Green Bay history

CONTENT BY: Rebecca Leighton Katers
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