• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fox River Cleanup Fight

Air Date: Week of

After years as a graveyard for fish and an eyesore for the citizens of Green Bay, Wisconsin, the Fox River is bouncing back. Although fish now run the river, scientists say PCB's in the riverbed pose a great health hazard. The plans to remove the toxins from the river are expensive and the question is: Who should foot the bill? Marge Pitroff of member station WUWM reports from Green Bay, on the shore of Lake Michigan.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.

(Sound of lapping water up and under)

CURWOOD: Lake Michigan looks as vast as an ocean, with an endless horizon and massive freighters lumbering up the shipping lanes. But this is not the ocean, salty with its billion years of runoff. The Great Lakes aren't much older than a blink of an eye, in geologic terms. Just ten thousand or so years ago the Ice Age receded to leave behind the largest area of fresh water in the world. In the upper Great Lakes the water has only changed a few dozen times since the big melt. That slow flushing cycle makes it easy to pollute. Where Lake Michigan is clean, the deep water is a brilliant blue. Closer to shore, the changing refraction of the light shifts the colors to a lush aqua green, something often noticed in the tropics. Perhaps that's what gave Green Bay its name.
But today, Green Bay, Wisconsin is a city beside a bay of grungy brown. There's a charming little amusement park filled with families and teenagers down at sands of Bay Beach, though It's been illegal to swim here for almost fifty years. Dead fish rot on the beach; more of them float belly up just off the shore. What's ruining the water and killing the fish? A lot of chemicals, for the most part, lingering from decades of dumping poisonous wastes from the factories and paper mills along the Fox River that empties into Green Bay. It's one of the most severely polluted parts of the Great Lakes. In 1985, the International Joint Commission, a U-S / Canadian panel, began a clean up campaign, and Green Bay has responded with a plan to make the waters of the Fox River and the Green Bay safe once more for people and marine life. We asked Marge Pitroff of member station WUWM to go to Green Bay and give us a progress report.

PITROFF: Water is a way of life in Green Bay. A third of all households here own boats. On any given summer weekend, you'll see hundreds of boaters fishing on the Fox River, which winds through the city and leads into the bay. And that same river sustains the largest concentration of paper industries in the world. But there's another fact of life about the water here - you don't drink it, you don't swim in it, and you don't eat most of the fish you catch in it.

(Sound of boat motor, male voice: Beautiful day, eh?)

PITROFF: Most of the fishermen on the concrete walk alongside the Fox River and Voyageur Park toss their catches back into the water.

PITROFF: So you catch a lot and you toss them all back?
FISHERMAN: I would never keep a fish out of here.
PITROFF: Why not?
FISHERMAN: Because of the water. I'm from northern Wisconsin, originally. We just moved here and I just can't believe the conditions of the rivers here, it's just - of course, I suppose with the paper mills and everything, that has a lot to do with it but I'm just not used to dirty water.

PITROFF: The Fox River is one of more than forty badly-polluted hot spots on the Great Lakes. It's also been one of the dirtiest rivers in the country for generations. People began complaining as early as 1925 they couldn't stand the stench and the sight of floating dead fish. County executive Tom Keene is a lifelong resident.

KEENE: I can remember as a kid, we lived on the west side of town, Grandma lived on the east side and in the summer, for a long hike you'd walk over to Grandma's, and you'd walk across the river and there would be fifteen, twenty yards of dead fish floating along the banks on either side of the river, and you'd stand on the bridge and you'd watch these blobs of whatever-it-was kind of bubbling and oozing and floating down the river. It was just a horrid, horrid looking place.

(Sound of ducks quacking, engines)

PITROFF: There was no single cause of the damage. For decades, sawmills discharged untreated waste directly into the water. Farming in the region increased the runoff of nutrients into the river, and finally industry, particularly the paper industry, seemed to deliver the final blow. Vicky Harris, of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, is head of Green Bay's cleanup efforts.

HARRIS: The chemicals that have been identified as the primary pollutants of concern here are a group of chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCB's, which were industrial compounds manufactured in the fifties and sixties and early seventies, and used for a great variety of purposes. In particular they were used as a carrier for ink on carbonless copy paper, which was manufactured and used extensively until PCB's were banned in 1976.

PITROFF: The aesthetic quality of the Fox River has improved noticeably since the 1970's, and dozens of fish species have returned. This is due in part to the ban on PCB's, and in part to the 1972 Federal Clean Water Act, which required industry and sewage plants to treat waste before discharging it. But the toxic materials dumped into the river before the regulations were imposed remain. Seven million cubic meters of those contaminated sediments are now layered on the bottom of the river - some as deep as thirty feet. Harris says those toxics, particularly the PCB's, are hazardous for several reasons. Studies show they work their way up the food chain, increasing in concentration as they're passed from fish to birds and other higher animals. And it's feared those toxics can cause long-term reproductive problems and deformities.

(Sound of gulls)

PITROFF: Green Bay residents have a visible reminder of the dangers, called Renard or Kidney Isle, located several hundred yards off the shore of Bay Beach in the bay of Green Bay.

JOHNSON: It is in the shape of a kidney, you can see how it curves in. So we're looking at the bottom of a river, essentially.

PITROFF: Bruce Johnson heads the local office of the Lake Michigan Federation. He says Renard Isle has been created by the Army Corps of Engineers, which dredges the mouth of the Fox River every year, so it's deep enough for ships to navigate. The sediments dumped here, Johnson says, have had devastating consequences for some species of birds.

JOHNSON: There is evidence that Foster's terns and cormorants and other wildlife are showing some deformities. There are some birth defects, cormorants have been born with twisted bills, they can't feed themselves, they die. These terns are experiencing reproductive problems and all kinds of other problems associated with uptake from those sediments.

PITROFF: But it's not just dredging which brings the toxics into the environment. Everything from violent storms to the daily flow of water constantly stir the sediments, reintroducing varied PCB's into the river, the bay, and the food chain. And Bruce Johnson says Green Bay's toxic sediments also threaten other parts of the world. When re-suspended in the water currents, he says, they can evaporate and be carried elsewhere. The responsibility for devising a plan to rid the Fox River of toxic deposits lies with a special committee of scientists, industry representatives and others from the Green Bay area. Vicky Harris' husband Bud is a member of the committee. He's director of the Institute of Land and Water Studies with the University of Wisconsin/ Green Bay, and has been deeply involved in mapping the sediments and devising removal options. Harris admits the task is daunting because no one has ever attempted a cleanup of this magnitude - more than thirty miles of river.

B. HARRIS: This is a very expensive business, and technologically it's an option, it can be done, but at what cost? And that's where we are now, trying to figure out what people are willing to pay to get to a certain level of reduction of the actual contaminant.

PITROFF: Bud Harris' wife Vicky also realizes science alone won't solve Green Bay's contaminated sediment problems. The other critical agreement, she says, is the political will of the people, especially since the cleanup is designed to be cooperative and voluntary. So Harris and the other cleanup organizers have been reaching out to the public, assigning citizens to various committees and holding frequent public hearings.

(Sound of public hearing)

HARRIS: I want to thank you for taking the time tonight to be here and to give us your input to help make this the best plan it can possibly be, and one that hopefully reflects your values and desires for the lower Fox River and Green Bay . . . (Fade under)

PITROFF: Vicky Harris chaired a recent hearing attended by several dozen people. Most who testify at these gatherings, she says, support the cleanup but disagree over how quickly the effort should proceed and who should pay. Becky Katers, a former member of the cleanup committee, echoes a popular opinion that industry should pay for the damage it inflicted on the river.

KATERS: We didn't ask for this, we did not consent to it. They did it against our will, and I for one don't want to be held accountable for what they did knowingly to the system.

PITROFF: Katers thinks cleanup organizers should take the paper industry and others to court to determine who's liable for the contamination, but that idea rankles industry leaders, who point out they've already spent millions of dollars cleaning up their factories and installing waste-treatment systems. According to Bruce Robertson of the James River Corporation, one of twenty paper mills on the river, the entire community must take responsibility for the sediment cleanup. Everyone has benefited from the industries which have prospered here, he says, and everyone shares the water. And he's certain industry would pay its fair share.

ROBERTSON: I think the general industry feeling is that to some extent they're willing to do some of the effort towards the cleanup where it can be demonstrated that we have a technology that can clean it up and also where there will be benefit.

PITROFF: It's likely industry won't be the only party demanding some type of guarantees before committing resources to a cleanup effort, and that's why the people organizing Green Bay's cleanup are pinning their hopes on a demonstration project later this year on Wisconsin's Lake Buttes des Morts on the upper end of the Fox River. Experts there will attempt to cleanse forty acres of the lake of PCB's. though the exact method and funding mechanism have not yet been determined. Peoples' reluctance to commit to an untried project is also the reason John Kennedy is advising a go-slow approach. He's a member of the cleanup's science and technical advisory committee.

KENNEDY: The end result of moving too fast on this could be a billion-dollar mistake. And I for one don't want my name attached to that. And in fact, I think we only need to make a million dollar mistake and our entire credibility goes down the tubes and the public support that we need so desperately for this process will be gone.

PITROFF: It appears many Green Bay residents have gradually changed their attitude toward the river. While for generations they literally turned their backs to the water, today many new homes and businesses are facing the Fox River, and a growing number of people are spending time in the new parks and walkways which line the shore. But whether that new appreciation of the water translates into a commitment to clean up the contaminated sediments remains to be seen. Bruce Johnson, of the Lake Michigan Federation.

JOHNSON: It's very difficult to tell someone that there may be potential health impacts and it could cost us a lot of money thirty years down the road when their biggest concern is covering their bills thirty days down the road. It's a tough sell and yet even with that kind of, with that kind of onus hanging over our heads, we have been able to generate some of the public support that we've needed.

PITROFF: Communities around other Great Lakes hot-spots are watching the steps Green Bay is taking. They see Green Bay as a microcosm not only of pollution problems which exist elsewhere on the lakes, but also of the political realities and human nature which often make those problems difficult to solve. For Living on Earth, I'm Marge Pitroff in Green Bay.



Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

P.O. Box 990007
Prudential Station
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Telephone: 1-617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Energy Foundation: Serving the public interest by helping to build a strong, clean energy economy.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth