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

July 16, 1993

Air Date: July 16, 1993


Fox River Cleanup Fight / Marge Pitroff

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. (13:05)

Leather Company Greens Up it's Act / Beth Graham

Beth Graham of member station WUWM reports on a Milwaukee leather factory with a history of polluting. For most of its career, the Pfister-Vogel tannery simply dumped its toxic metals into the Milwaukee River. But when stricter environmental regulations forced Pfister-Vogel to change the way it disposed of industrial waste, the company began to discover new production and conservation methods that actually saved money. (07:32)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

Copyright (c) 1993 by World Media Foundation. No portion of this transcript may be copied, sold, or retransmitted without the written authority of World Media Foundation.

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Doug Philips, Jessica Berman, Bill Menner, Marge Pitroff, Beth Graham

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

This week, the first of two programs from the Great Lakes region. In Green Bay, where the Fox River meets Lake Michigan, people are finding that getting decades worth of toxic chemicals off the river bottom is a technical, financial, and political challenge.

KENNEDY: The end result of moving too fast on this could be a billion-dollar mistake. 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.

CURWOOD: And in Milwaukee, we visit a factory that's earning patents and making millions by cleaning up its discharges.

VERO: I think that that's what all these crackdowns in discharge limits are doing, it's forcing companies to be innovative.

CURWOOD: That's coming up on Living on Earth, right after this news.

(Theme music fade out)

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

Leading sugar growers have agreed with the Interior Department and the state of Florida on a plan to restore the Florida Everglades. The pact ends five years of litigation over the destruction of Florida's unique wetlands. From Miami, Doug Philips reports.

PHILIPS: Under the agreement nearly a half a billion dollars will be spent during the next twenty years to clean up the water which flows through the Everglades. The deal will cost Florida's major sugar-cane growers more than $300 million dollars. The plan calls for growers to reduce the amount of polluting phosphorus, which has been running off their farms and into the Everglades for decades. A series of marshes to filter farm runoff will be built, and the amount of water flowing through the Everglades ecosystem will be increased. But many environmentalists have criticized the plan as too vague because, although goals have been announced, specific methods of reaching them have yet to be negotiated. They also charge that the amount of allowable phosphorus runoff from farms will still be harmful to the Everglades, and they say sugar-cane growers are paying so little for the cleanup that it's laughable. For Living on Earth, I'm Doug Philips in Miami.

NUNLEY: After years of denying allegations of problems with the Alaska oil pipeline, Alyeska Pipeline Company president David Pritchard told a House subcommittee that reports of violations, made by former company inspectors, were accurate. Alyeska either fired or forced out six pipeline inspectors for reporting environmental problems.

Core samples taken from ice in Greenland indicate that global climate changes may happen more quickly and dramatically than previously thought. Scientists writing in the journal Nature report finding evidence of dramatic shifts in the earth's climate between the last two ice ages, in some cases within as little as a decade. They linked the sudden temperature shifts to varying concentrations of naturally-occurring greenhouse gases. They say the study provides clues to how human-generated greenhouse gas emissions could contribute to global warming.

A United Nations report warns that deforestation and over-grazing are robbing the world of productive topsoil, and could cause a worldwide food shortage early in the next century. Jessica Berman reports from Washington.

BERMAN: The dire prediction is contained in a study by the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization. It says worldwide an area roughly the size of Alaska is in danger of losing its value as arable land within 20 years. And farmland equivalent to the size of western Europe has already lost most productivity, thanks to overgrazing, deforestation and destructive farming practices. The greatest losses have occurred in Africa and Asia, where four percent of the land has become useless for farming. As a result the report predicts that few African countries will be able to achieve sustainable agriculture any time soon, while Latin America and Asia could experience serious food shortages. The report says it's possible to reverse these trends, but that's going to take careful social, economic and technological planning. For Living on Earth, I'm Jessica Berman in Washington.

NUNLEY: This is Living on Earth.

The heavy rains pouring down on the Midwest can devastate farmland even miles from flooded rivers. But farmers in Iowa and elsewhere are successfully protecting their land from erosion through a soil conservation strategy called "no-till farming." From member station KUNI in Cedar Falls, Bill Menner reports.

MENNER: No-till leaves corn and soybean stubble from season to season. Iowa state extension agronomist Rick Exner says those stalks help absorb the rain.

EXNER: No-till leaves more residue on the surface of the soil and because you haven't pulverized the soil, the soil holds together better and resists erosion.

MENNER: Exner says no-till practices can cut erosion from ten to fifteen tons of soil per acre per year, to one to two tons. He says no one knows yet what kind of erosion to expect this year. Exner says no-till has helped cut the losses. For Living on Earth, I'm Bill Menner in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

NUNLEY: Two-thirds of all Americans live in areas that don't meet Federal air quality standards. That's according to a recent report by the American Lung Association, which also says the situation has gotten worse since its first study four years ago. The report analyzed EPA and US census data. It warned that more than 31 million children and over 18 million elderly people are at special risk from air pollution.

The European Commission has threatened to take Britain to court for ignoring Community-wide rules on drinking water quality. The Commission is responding to reports that as many as fourteen and a half million residents of England and Wales drink tapwater polluted with pesticides, nitrates and other chemicals.

The government of Belize has turned over six thousand acres of rain forest to an association of traditional healers. It's an attempt to breathe new life into a waning medicine culture. The group plans to harvest medicinal plants for local use, and train a new generation of practitioners. The healers plan to build a small factory to refine and sell the botanical cures in Belize.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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(Theme music up and under, crossfades to sound of lapping water)

Fox River Cleanup Fight

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.

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(Music up and under sound of freighter)

Leather Company Greens Up it's Act

CURWOOD: Starting in 1922, the freighter Iroquois ferried cargo around the Great Lakes.

(Freighter whistle blasts)

CURWOOD: Today the boat carries sightseers up and down the Milwaukee River and out on to Lake Michigan.

TOUR GUIDE: On the right you see piles of coal used for electricity in the power plant . . . (Fade under)

CURWOOD: The Wisconsin Electric Power Company plant is the high spot of the tour. The boat also cruises by massive granaries and mile after mile of dirty stone factories. In fact, nearly all of the Milwaukee River is lined with industry. The river provides easy transportation, and a handy spot to dump wastes. For almost 150 years one of the largest tanneries in the nation poured huge amounts of toxic metals into the Milwaukee River. Then in 1985 much tougher Federal rules forced the leathermaker, Pfister Vogel, to cut its pollution. But instead of letting the added expense of new rules cut into their profits, Pfister Vogel's managers found a new way to improve the bottom line. Beth Graham from member station WUWM has our report.

GRAHAM: Milwaukee is known around the world for its breweries, but the German immigrants who settled the city in the 1800's were also furniture builders, sausage makers, and tanners. In 1848, the manufacturing plants dotting the Milwaukee River's edge were joined by the new creamy-brick tannery built by Guido Pfister and Frederick Vogel. The company still calls this original five story plant, now nearly 150 years old, home. Here workers process as many as 44,000 cowhides a week into high-quality leather for shoemakers like L.L. Bean, Sebago and Red Wing. A primary ingredient in making leather these days is trivalent chromium, a heavy metal that preserves the hide and gives it leather's characteristic stiffness. And for years, much of the chrome used here was discharged into the Milwaukee sewage system.

BATES: For years they had a very bad image.

GRAHAM: Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District industrial waste engineer Tim Bates.

BATES: You tend to get a bad image when you're discharging a lot of any pollutant to the sewers. Pfister and Vogel is the largest chrome user and chrome discharger in the country.

GRAHAM: Most of that chrome used to end up in sewage sludge - sludge that the district dries and sells as fertilizer. But in 1990 the Federal Government cut its standard for allowable chrome in sludge by half, and there was concern in Milwaukee that the dramatic reductions in chrome standards could cause the industry trouble. Jim Cole is an industrial wastewater engineer for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

COLE: We didn't even know if the tanneries, as businesses, would survive in the city. We had reason to believe that they might but we weren't sure. But we knew that we had to bring the facilities into compliance, so we proceeded very carefully.

GRAHAM: Because of the volume of its business, Pfister-Vogel already had a chrome-recovery system in place, but it was fifteen years old and out of date. Pfister-Vogel parent company US Leather hired a new vice-president for environmental affairs to oversee the redesign of the system. Paul Ericson says that rather than looking to another expensive, end-of-the-pipeline solution, the company decided to re-examine its whole process, from start to finish.

ERICSON: There were some very complicated, anticipated, frequent recipes that just didn't make sense, so you had to basically get back with the people inside the tannery and start asking, why do you do this, why do we do this, and if we did this, what's the impact on production?

GRAHAM: That painstaking research paid off. Today with new technology and re-engineered treatment recipes, Pfister-Vogel captures 85 percent of its waste chrome, and reusing that chrome saves the company a half-million dollars a year. So its million-dollar investment in the new recovery system will be paid off in two years. But in a way that's just the beginning of the story. In looking for ways to reduce its chrome waste, US Leather found other ways to make its production process more efficient and less wasteful. For example, says Paul Ericson, animal fat left in the chrome bath after the leather's been processed is now separated out.

ERICSON: And that's the material that's sent over and then heated and acidified and a very big portion of it recovered as an animal lanolin that is reused in some of the final processes to make the leather soft and pliable.

GRAHAM: This saves the company fifty percent of the cost of its finishing oil. The chrome recovery system also saves the plant one hundred thousand gallons of water each day, reducing its sewage charges seven and a half percent. And, at a suggestion of the Department of Natural Resources, the company's also looking into selling the gypsum and potash produced by its tanning process as potting soil. US Leather officials are aware that all these pollution control and recycling efforts benefit the company's corporate image along with the environment. American shoemakers like Stride-Rite and G.H. Bass are very conscious of the impact their industry has on the environment. The companies now tag their Pfister-Vogel leather products as "environmentally-friendly." If that helps sell shoes, it also helps sell more Pfister-Vogel leather. Ericson says he doesn't know exactly how all these innovations and marketing possibilities will affect his company's bottom line. But US Leather does seem to have learned a valuable lesson.

ERICSON: There's no massive answer to recycling, it's a chemistry there and a chemistry there, but you start accumulating your recycling efforts, you come up to some pretty big numbers.

GRAHAM: Those numbers also look good to the Lake Michigan Federation. The activist group helped Pfister-Vogel in its pollution control and recycling efforts. Regional Director Kathy Vero says she's not surprised by the variety of potential uses uncovered when companies try to reuse and recycle wastes.

VERO: That's, I mean that's exactly the old adage, you know, one person's garbage is another person's treasure. And I think that that's what all these crackdowns in discharge limits are doing, is forcing companies to be innovative and to find outlets for their waste.

GRAHAM: And Vero says the changes at Pfister-Vogel are just one example of how tougher laws to protect the Lake Michigan basin can also be good business policy for the region's industry. Others in the leather industry may be able to benefit from Pfister-Vogel's experience as well. And while Pfister-Vogel has patents pending on its new chrome recovery system, the company says its doors will be open to its competitors in Milwaukee and elsewhere to come in and check out the new technology. And that could be good news for both Milwaukee's leather industry and the city's environment. For Living on Earth, I'm Beth Graham in Milwaukee.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Next week on Living on Earth, we visit America's dairyland, where a revolution in farming is underway. Over one thousand family dairy farms go out of business each year in Wisconsin, but we meet one family of farmers who believe more sustainable farming methods can not only help keep farmers in business, but make a cleaner watershed for Lake Michigan as well.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Let us know what you think about our program. Give us a call on our listener comment line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Or you can write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 02238. Transcripts and tapes are ten dollars.

Living on Earth was produced this week by George Homsy; it was edited by Peter Thomson and directed by Deborah Stavro. The production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Chris Page, Tom Verde, Colleen Singer Coxe, Reyna Lounsbury, Jessica Bellameera, Ben Paulos and engineers Doug Haslam, Tony Natola, and Karen Given. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Special thanks, this week, go to member station WUWM in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in cooperation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

ANNOUNCER: Living on Earth is made possible with major funding provided by the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; by all-natural Stonyfield Farm Yogurt - Stonyfield Farm Yogurt is made with milk from family farms to feed the local economy; by the Pew Charitable Trusts, and by the W. Alton Jones Foundation. Support also comes from the Joyce Foundation and the Great Lakes Protection Fund for reporting on the Great Lakes region.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

The preceding text has been professionally transcribed. However, although the text has been checked against an audio track, in order to meet rigid distribution and transmission deadlines, it has not yet been proofread against tape.


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