Two corporations have agreed to spend $30 million on the expedited dredging and disposal of the most toxic sediments in Wisconsin's Fox River as part of a legal settlement announced today by the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Office supplies company NCR, and paper manufacturer Sonoco-U.S. Mills Inc. will design and implement the cleanup project. They have agreed to dredge, dewater and dispose of about 100,000 cubic yards of sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) downstream and west of the De Pere Dam.
"The Fox River is the biggest source of PCBs flowing into Lake Michigan," said EPA Regional Administrator Thomas Skinner. "Cleaning up this hot spot is a major step toward eventually removing the Fox and Lower Green Bay from EPA's list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern."
The state of Wisconsin was a partner in today's consent decree, which was lodged today in United States District Court in Milwaukee and is subject to a 30-day public comment period. If the court approves the settlement, dredging is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2007.
The Lower Fox River and Green Bay Superfund Site encompasses a 40 mile stretch of the Fox River and more than 1,000 square miles of Green Bay in northeastern Wisconsin.
Sediments in both water bodies are contaminated with about 700,000 pounds of PCBs that were discharged into the river in connection with past production and re-processing of carbonless copy paper containing PCBs at multiple facilities from about 1954 to 1971.
PCBs are a group of manufactured chemicals. They were widely used in electrical equipment, in industrial processes, and in the manufacture and recycling of carbonless copy paper until research in the early 1970s showed that they pose risks to human health, wildlife and the natural environment. Their use and discharge into the environment were outlawed by federal environmental regulations in 1976.
The ban was successful, but because PCBs bind to dirt and break down very slowly, they are still found today in the sediment of the Lower Fox River and Green Bay. PCBs bioaccumulate, concentrating up the food chain as smaller species containing the chemicals are eaten by larger species. PCB levels in top predators such as bald eagles, lake trout, and humans can be millions of times those found in surface water.
The PCBs at this Superfund site have caused adverse health effects and reproductive effects in fish and birds. Fish and waterfowl in the area are subject to human health based consumption advisories.
"Today's settlement provides for the prompt removal of the most highly contaminated sediments in the Lower Fox River and Green Bay site, greatly improving the quality of the environment and mitigating the harm that the PCBs have caused to fish and birds in the area," said Sue Ellen Wooldridge, assistant attorney general of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
This agreement furthers the past progress made on cleanup and restoration of the entire site, which is one of the largest contaminated sediment sites in the United States.
"It is another important milestone in the efforts to cleanup this site, and it underscores the department's commitment to ensuring that hazardous waste sites are cleaned up and that the cleanup costs are borne by the responsible parties," Wooldridge said.
Between 1998 and 2000, two major sediment removal demonstration projects were completed in areas of the river under agreements that the paper companies reached with EPA and Wisconsin. Those projects helped demonstrate that contaminated sediments at the site can safely and feasibly be dredged.
Full-scale dredging in the uppermost segment of the river began last year under a 2003 settlement with two of the paper companies, P.H. Glatfelter Co. and Wisconsin Tissue Mills.
NCR and another paper company, Fort James Operating Co., are currently performing detailed remedial design work for the downstream portions of the river under a separate consent decree, under the direction of the EPA.
The paper companies also have paid more than $35 million for natural resource restoration projects under several of the partial settlements. The money from those settlements has been used to acquire wildlife habitat that will be protected as state-managed natural areas, to protect and propagate threatened native fish and bird species, and to preserve native plants and enhance bird habitat in areas such as the Green Bay National Wildlife Refuge.
In 2003, the U.S. EPA and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) issued two Records of Decision selecting the cleanup remedy for different portions of the Site. Taken together, the two decisions would require removal of 7.25 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment at an estimated total cost of about $400 million.
While the Wisconsin DNR and the EPA have specified landfilling as the chosen method for dealing with sediment dredged from the Fox River, they have also allowed for the consideration of alternative approaches. Vitrification is one of those alternatives.
This relatively new technology that involves melting sediment at very high heat and turning it into a glassy material, which can then be used in road construction projects and in the making of concrete and shingles. Melting the contaminated sediment from the Fox River at such high temperatures has been shown in a demonstration project to destroy the PCBs in it.
While vitrification is in many ways an attractive option, there are some drawbacks that could make it difficult to use in the Fox River project, the DNR says.
It has been tested only on a small scale, and the technology is unproven at the much larger scale that would be necessary for the Fox River cleanup. There are no vitrification facilities in Wisconsin that can handle sediment, and it could take up to three years to obtain the necessary permits, find a suitable site, and design and build a new full-scale facility.
The final cost of this alternative is still in question, the the DNR says the greater cost of vitrification instead of landfilling for sediment disposal may be offset by permanently removing the PCBs from the environment.
The DNR's Remedial Action Plan for the Lower Fox River/Green Bay Area of Concern establishes a goal of increasing the number and diversity of the fishery through the increase of top level predators in the aquatic food chain.
The state of Michigan and the Oneida Tribe and Menominee Tribe are also cooperating with the United States and Wisconsin in many aspects of the Fox River/Green Bay restoration program but are not parties to this particular settlement.
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