Lower Fox River cleanup project completed after nearly 17 years

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
An aerial view of the Lower Fox River.

The Department of Natural Resources announced that the Fox River Valley cleanup project has been completed after it first began in 2004.

The project tackled the river's 39-mile inundation of polychlorinated biphenyl, toxic industrial compounds that pose serious danger to humans and wildlife, which came from nearby industrial plants. The PCBs severely affected fish and other wildlife in the river's ecosystem, and it also contaminated the sediment along the river.

The project removed 6.5 cubic yards of the sediment, added 780 acres of separated and cleaned sand and also cleaned 10 billion gallons of water. Engineering caps were installed across the riverbed to contain PCBs.

The companies responsible for the pollution, NCR Corporation, Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter, are paying for the cost of the project and will continue to pay into follow-up costs as the river continues to recover from the pollution. Cleanup costs are estimated to have reached $1 billion.

The US Department of Justice ordered NCR to pay $200 million towards the project after they already spent $668 million in environmental penalties on the issue. Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter are responsible for $40 million in long-term monitoring.

DNR Secretary Preston Cole called it one of the largest cleanup projects in the world, with several state agencies, federal agencies, tribal nations and private companies working together. He said PCB testing will be ongoing to monitor levels – there's already been a 90% reduction since 2006, he said. 

"People can now recreate and enjoy the river of Green Bay in ways that was absolutely unimaginable 25 years ago," Cole said. "Although we've done a lot to rectify the past to make our water safer for Wisconsin, there's still a lot more work to do."

Governor Tony Evers applauded the project completion, saying that the project has brought conservation leaders together in efforts to provide safe drinking water and healthy ecosystems to Wisconsin's fish and wildlife. He also said the project serves as a a catalyst for future efforts to mitigate the effects of climate change.

"Here in Wisconsin, we know the value of our land and water, and this project's completion is a testament to the great sense of pride and vision Wisconsinites have for our beautiful state," Evers said. "Now to carry that pride forward and carry that vision forward as we work to preserve our land and water and tackle the devastating impacts of climate change on our communities, wildlife and resources."

Tetra Tech employees pick up a water turbidity monitor in July near the Ray Nitschke Memorial Bridge in downtown Green Bay. Cleanup of PCBs in the Fox River has wrapped up but monitoring will continue for years.

Kurt Thiede, Region 5 Administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, said he toured the Lower Fox River area with EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler last month to observe the progress of the project. He said the scope of the cleanup "blew him away" and added that this is also a success for the broader Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which aims to restore and protect the coastal wetland areas surrounding the lakes.

Charlie Wooley, Midwest regional director for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, commended the cleanup completion and added that his agency was able to secure an additional $100 million from the companies responsible for the pollution and use it in a trust as compensation for injuries to Wisconsin residents and wildlife affected by the toxic chemicals.

He said the money has been put towards more than 170 projects, rebuilding habitats, fishery enhancements and restoration efforts.

"This work was undertaken to provide meaningful compensation for the citizens of Wisconsin for the injuries by PCBs, and what we call our living resources – resources that belong to the people of Wisconsin," Wooley said. "We're united in our approach, which is how we can make these dollars that we've received from the responsible parties get matching funds and do even more with the dollars we have for the citizens of Wisconsin."

The Oneida Nation and Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin also pitched in with cleanup efforts. Tehassi Hill, chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, said protection of water is essential to human life, and the project brings us one step closer to having the pristine waters we once had in this country.

Gary Besaw, Department of Agriculture and Food Systems director for the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, said we all benefit from what is good for the environment, and hopes we don't go down the path of pollution in the future.

"The name for what we now call Wisconsin comes from our beautiful language and translates to 'a good place to live,'" Besaw said. "And we know the Green Bay and Fox River region are key and important to sustaining life. ... You have a responsibility to the water."