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Cleaning Up the Lower Fox

August 25, 2008

By Reinsch, Lee Marie

Eight years into the cleanup of the lower Fox River, tons of toxins have been removed, and proponents of clean water see light at the end of the culvert.

“We want what’s best for the river, and from everything I’ve been involved with in the process, both the EPA and the DNR are really trying to do their best to clean it up,” says Candice Mortara, president of Friends of the Fox advocacy group.

The lower Fox River’s PCB contamination, believed to have been caused at least in part by the production of carbonless copy paper, is among the area’s most well-known toxic waste dilemmas. Categorized by the Environmental Protection Agency an “NRDA” – that’s Natural Resource Damage Assessment – it’s also one of the state’s largest Superfund sites (see story, page 30).

Despite its having more paper and pulp mills per mile than any other place in the world, it’s hard to say how Northeast Wisconsin stacks up against other states in pollution production.

One “can’t really say one state is better or worse, since all states and sites are different,” says Susan Pastor, EPA’s Superfund project manager for Region 5. Pastor works with most of the state’s more than 40 Superfund sites.

PCB dangers

The Fox River flows into the bay of Green Bay, which flows into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is the source of drinking water for much of Northeast Wisconsin.

PCBs aren’t something to shrug off, like those reports that the average computer keyboard contains more bacteria than a public toilet seat. PCBs are carcinogenic to animals and wildlife and likely people, too. They don’t disintegrate and decompose on their own. Instead, they affect plant, fish and wildlife chains.

Once they get into a bay or lake, such as Green Bay and Lake Michigan, they’re next to impossible to retrieve, says the EPA. That’s why it’s important to remove PCBs from the Fox River before they get to the larger water bodies.

Between 1957 and 1971, it’s estimated that 250,000 pounds of PCBs (not just 250,000 pounds of sediment containing PCBs) were released into the river, tainting 11 million tons of sediment. PCBs were banned around 1977, but they’re hardly gone from the environment.

The EPA reports that several hundred million cubic yards of sediments in the Bay likely contain some 150,000 pounds of PCBs.

In the late 1970s, the state issued an advisory for Sheboygan- area residents not to eat fish from three rivers in Sheboygan County that had been tainted with PCBs believed to be from a tool-and-die maker located near the Sheboygan River. The advisory not only still stands but was expanded in the late 1980s to include wildlife from the area. The same thing happened with the bay of Green Bay in the mid-1970s, and people are still being cautioned against eating fish or wildlife from the Fox River, Green Bay and area.

“Of course, everyone wants the river to be as safe as possible,” says Mortara. “We wish there weren’t so many fish advisories. There is no way to return the system to as pristine as it was in nature.”

But Mortara said she’s just happy that work is being done on the cleanup projects.

Mortara would have preferred to have seen the PCBs undergo the vitrification process and be turned into bits of a glass-like substance – another option, albeit a very pricey option. In the vitrification process, sediment containing PCBs is used in place of limestone and sand in the heating process of glass creation, and tiny blackish, almost gem-like opalescent nuggets are the result.

The lower Fox, up North

It seems counterintuitive to the non-river person, but the upper Fox is down in southern Wisconsin, while the lower Fox is up north.

The Upper Fox River starts in southwestern Green Lake County, then winds west-southwest to Portage before flowing north into Marquette County and east into Lake Puckaway (ironically only 10 miles north of its headwaters) before taking a northeast route through the White River Marsh into Lake Poygan, Lake Winneconne, Lake Butte des Morts and Lake Winnebago in Oshkosh.

The Lower Fox River begins at the Menasha and Neenah channels leading from Lake Winnebago and flows northeast for 39 miles to the bay of Green Bay. So downstream is north.

(There is a second Fox River in Wisconsin, which flows through Waukesha, Racine and Kenosha counties into Illinois.)

The Lower Fox has a dozen dams. The Superfund cleanup focuses on the 39-mile stretch of the river plus the bay past the Door County tip to its outlet into Lake Michigan.

The Fox River locks project – a project involving the maintenance and opening of as many of the 17 locks on the lower Fox as possible – won’t be impacted. The locks will still be navigable, Mortara said.

Progress report

The EPA separates the river into what it calls “operable units” – segments for measuring and observing progress.

The operable units include Little Lake Butte des Morts, Appleton to Little Rapids, Little Rapids to De Pere, De Pere to Green Bay, and the Bay of Green Bay.

An update on where cleanup is on each of the segments:

Little Lake Butte des Morts: The lake has been fully dredged, and the sediment is draining (known in technical terms as “dewatering”) in huge black rubber tubes that look like colossal, flat loaves of bread the length of several cars.

In 1998 and 1999, the EPA removed 8,200 cubic yards of sediment, 112 pounds of PCBs, by dredging. The project showed that dredging could be done safely and for less money than other options.

In 2002 and 2003, 800,000 cubic yards of sediments were slated to be dredged and disposed of, although a revised record of decision reports a modification to the mandate – that some of the plans for dredging be changed to capping and covering. Between 2004 and 2008, another 335,000 cubic yards of sediments were dredged.

Appleton to De Pere: By project’s end, some 3.5 million cubic yards should be dredged and 3.7 million cubic yards of sediment containing PCBs should be capped. This is a modified version of the original plan, which called for dredging of 7.1 million cubic yards and capping 500,000 cubic yards. This modification is expected to be accomplished faster and for less money, $390 million, compared with a previous estimate of $ 580 million, according to the EPA.

De Pere to Green Bay: In 1999 and 2000, a dredging project removed 80,000 cubic yards of sediment, 3,400 pounds of which were PCBs.

Dredging at a hotspot north of the De Pere Dam removed 130,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. A sand cover will be placed over areas with high levels of PCBs.

Green Bay: Limited dredging and monitored natural recovery is the plan of attack – dredging to the extent that is feasible, then capping the remaining sediment with three layers of sand and stone and monitoring the cap in the long term to ensure no leaks happen.

“It’s too expensive to dredge completely, and too difficult because it has too much shore line,” says Mortara. Dredging completely would mean digging beneath the shoreline.

Research on caps on other rivers has proven their results satisfactory, Mortara says, so she and the Friends of the Fox support the EPA and DNR’s decision.

“I didn’t get any feeling that they were just trying to get it done the cheapest way possible,” Mortara said. “I feel like they are using prudence and due diligence. Since they have come forward and said dredging and capping would work, we believe in that.”

Who pays?

There are still several years ahead in the cleanup project to wade through, and part of that time could be spent slinging mud in court. Two of the paper mills deemed responsible for the pollution recently named a slew of surrounding municipalities in a lawsuit to help pay for cleanup costs.

Copyright ADD, Inc. Aug 5, 2008

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