Fox River, Green Bay restoration effort shows progress

Lee Bergquist
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A massive effort to improve fishing, upgrade habitat and provide better public access along the Fox River and Green Bay has started to take hold and will get a boost from an additional $46 million to continue the work.

"We've made positive changes in the Lower Fox River and Green Bay," Charlie Wooley, deputy regional director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a statement as officials gathered this week near Green Bay to announce the new funding.

Examples include major improvements in the walleye and musky fishery, and Wooley noted that the federally endangered piping plover has returned to the restored Cat Island chain in Green Bay and that thousands of acres have been preserved on the western shore of the bay.

The new funding from a court settlement brings to $106 million that will be spent on ecological restoration work in the river, the bay and surrounding properties

The Fox is the site of the largest cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls in the United States. PCBs were used in paper making from the 1950s to the early 1970s as part of an industrial process that polluted the river and Green Bay.

In a separate but related effort, more than $1 billion is being spent by paper companies and others to remove or cover up PCB-contaminated sediments in the river.

From 2009 to 2015, more than 3.8 million cubic yards of sediments were dredged. More dredging is planned this year, according to Fox River Cleanup Group, which was formed by the parties that are paying for the project.

The latest infusion of money is designed to fund ongoing improvements in areas that have been harmed by the contamination.

Officials from the Fish and Wildlife Service, state Department of Natural Resources and two Indian tribes, the Oneida and Menominee, met at Brown County's Barkhausen Waterfowl Preserve, where work to upgrade spawning habitat for northern pike has already taken place.

The $106 million in natural resource damages was approved in a settlement in February 2015 in U.S. District Court between polluting parties and Fish and Wildlife Service, DNR and the Oneida and Menominee tribes.

In 2003, officials estimated that the damage caused by the PCBs was much higher — $242 million and $458 million in today's dollars.

But they say that they are now satisfied with accepting a lower figure of $106 million from the settlement, according to documents, and believe the "public is appropriately compensated without further litigation or delay."

The reason: The Fox River and Green Bay have been harmed by runoff pollution, an influx of invasive species in the Great Lakes and fluctuating water levels and drought that were not initially factored in.

Those stressors have prompted other spending in the past decade from federal, state and private sources aimed at improving water quality.

"We have learned a lot in the past 13 years," said Betsy Galbraith, a fish and wildlife biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service in an interview.

So far, the money from the polluting parties has paid for preserving, restoring or improving nearly 11,800 acres of terrestrial and aquatic habitat. Five percent of all the funding has been spent on improving public access.

More work is planned with the new funds. Officials have scheduled a public meeting on those efforts at the Brown County Central Library from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. April 21.

PCBs had many uses in manufacturing, including the production of carbonless paper manufactured between 1954 and 1971.

The chemicals, which can be found in the tissue of fish and can cause health problems in humans eating the fish, were discharged into the river and settled in the sediments of the Fox and Green Bay. Upstream, Little Lake Butte des Morts also was affected.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated 14 million cubic yards containing more than 51,000 pounds of PCBs were dumped in the river.

An even larger volume of toxic waste lies in Green Bay and will not be removed. The EPA says several hundred million cubic yards of sediment and 154,000 pounds of PCBs have floated into the bay.

The six parties that settled with federal and state authorities and the tribes and agreed to pay the $46 million are: the City of Appleton, CBC Coating Inc., Menasha Corp., Neenah-Menasha Sewerage Commission, U.S. Paper Mills Corp. and WTM I Co., formerly known as Wisconsin Tissue Mills.