Two paper companies that discharged PCBs into northeast Wisconsin’s Fox River have agreed to pay $50 million toward the cleanup of the river’s headwaters. The remainder of the expected $60 million in cleanup costs will be paid by paper companies that played a lesser role in the PCB discharges.
The discharges, which occurred before PCBs were banned by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), were a byproduct of carbon-copy paper manufacturing by Fox River paper mills. EPA banned PCBs in 1977, after studies of laboratory animals injected with high doses of PCBs for prolonged periods of time indicated such exposures could cause animals to develop cancer. No link has been established between human health and PCB exposure, even among persons living near PCB discharges.
The cleanup agreement addresses efforts at Fox River headwaters designated OU1 by EPA. A settlement has yet to be reached regarding the downstream portions of the river designated OU2, OU3, OU4, and OU5. Government and industry officials were optimistic they would soon reach agreement on removing PCBs from the downstream portion of the river.
“We basically took what we felt the costs were going to be to clean up OU1 and we went to the parties, and they agreed to split the cost of it,” said Tom Skinner, administrator of EPA Region 5. “It’s a strong commitment by the mills, and it bodes well for additional agreements that address the rest of the contamination.”
“This is really a historic day in Wisconsin,” said Governor Jim Doyle (D). “The Fox River has always been vitally important to Wisconsin and the Fox River Valley for transportation, industry, agriculture, and recreation. The modern state of Wisconsin was born on the banks of the Fox River.”
Added Doyle, “With this settlement, the companies and the agencies involved avoid the high cost of litigation and the lengthy delays that would only add to the eventual cost of the cleanup and delay the cleanup for many years.”
Under the agreement, sediments with PCB concentrations of more than 1 part per million will be dredged, with the sediment deposited in yet-to-be determined landfills. Sediments under at least three feet of water that are unlikely to be dislodged by natural or human activities will be buried and capped in place either by natural sedimentation buildup or by the emplacement of sand and gravel fill.
“This agreement reached with the state and federal government is a model of cooperation,” noted Ken Clusman, manager of a Fox River mill owned by Glatfelter, which has agreed to contribute $25 million to the cleanup. “It reflects our collective commitment to improve the quality of the Fox River system.”
“The agencies have made the right call on the river,” agreed the Sierra Club’s Penny Bernard Schaber.
James M. Taylor is managing editor of Environment & Climate News. His email address is [email protected].