Settlement agreement puts end to fight over who pays for Fox River PCB cleanup

Paul Srubas
Green Bay Press-Gazette
A dredging unit works on the Fox River near Wisconsin 172 as part of the PCB removal project.

GREEN BAY — More than 20 years of complex legal arguments came to a close this week as U.S. District Judge William Griesbach signed off on an agreement that will require three paper companies to pay the rest of the bill on the Fox River-PCB cleanup.

 The toxic PCBs were used in the production of carbonless copy paper in the 1950s and 1960s and were spread through wastewater discharges from the manufacturing of recycled paper products.

The paper companies responsible for the pollution have been fighting in court over the payment of the cleanup process, and it looked like the  legal battle would continue years after the cleanup.

But in fall of 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency worked out a settlement agreement with the last major players in the fight.

All but one of those major companies signed off on the agreement. The holdout, P. H Glatfelter Co., until recently objected to its portion of the costs under the agreement.

Brennan Marine employees work from a dredging barge removing PCBs from the Fox River just south of the Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge in downtown Green Bay.

Under the agreement:

  • NCR, which produced the carbonless copy paper, agreed to take sole responsibility for the remaining cost of cleanup, estimated at $200 million over the next couple years. That’s over and above the $668 million that NCR and Appvion have already spent for cleanup and natural resource restoration penalties. Appvion, formerly Appleton Papers, bought NCR's Fox Valley paper production business in the 1970s.
  • NCR and Appvion waived all claims for cost recovery from the other companies, specifically from Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter, which discharged PCBs when they recycled carbonless copy paper.
  • Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter will bear primary responsibility for long-term monitoring and maintenance of the cleanup, with NCR in a backup role. That’s expected to cost about $40 million.

Through previous settlements, the three companies and other responsible parties have paid for much of the remediation as well as $100 million for natural resource restoration efforts. The integrity of the remediation in the river will be monitored for many years to come at the companies’ expense.

The cleanup, which began with pilot projects in 1998, is expected to be complete in 2020. The cleanup plan was jointly selected by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.