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Simpson Street Free Press

The Fox River Cleanup, A Battle Against Decades of Pollution

The Fox River flows across central and east-central Wisconsin to Green Bay and was contaminated with cancer-causing chemicals during the mid-20th century It took almost 17 years to clean the entire river.

Between the 1950s and 1970s, the Fox River began to be contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, created by seven Fox River Valley paper companies. This chemical compound causes various harmful effects such as cancer and other health conditions. In addition, this substance can cause liver damage, acne-like skin, and neurobehavioral and immunological abnormalities in children.

There were many debates around the cleanup of the Fox River. One of them was about who would pay for the cleanup. Environmental activists said that the seven companies should pay to clean the river because they were the ones who contaminated it. However, the seven companies argued that taxpayers should also have to pay some of the cost. At the end of this argument, everyone decided that the seven paper companies responsible had to pay all the costs with a total estimated $1.3 billion.

The second debate was about what strategy to use in the clean up and three strategies were developed. One of the strategies was to let the river clean itself because people said that untouched areas would improve over time. Another strategy was dredging the PCB-laden sediment from the river bed. The last strategy was covering the sediment with sand or rocks.

Active clean-up attempts for the Fox River began in 2004. After the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) started a dredging project, done by some paper companies, cleaning ended in 2020. Using a combination of the second and third strategies capping, covering, and dredging were authorized by the EPA. The project had four Remedial Action Objectives (RAO) for the Lower Fox River cleanup. One was to achieve. surface water quality criteria for PCBs throughout the Lower Fox River and Green Bay. Another objective was to protect humans from exposure to contaminants that exceed protective levels (achieve safe exposure for recreational and high-intake fish consumers). In the end, the clean-up was a success.

The river will be supervised for several years to prevent the spread of PCBs and to make sure that the water and fish are healthy.

[Source: Wisconsin History Highlights]

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