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The Lower Fox River and Green Bay areas hold a treasure of natural resources. Situated on one of the major bird migration routes in North America, the Mississippi flyway, the Fox River and Green Bay environment provides essential habitat for large populations of breeding and migratory birds. The terrestrial, wetland and aquatic habitats in the watershed support a wide diversity of songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl.
Green Bay and its tributaries also support an important, nationally known fishery. The wetlands along the bay's west shore, as well as the wetlands lining the many streams and rivers that flow into Green Bay, provide critical fish spawning habitat for perch, northerns, walleye and the elusive spotted musky. Cold, deep waters characterize the open waters of outer Green Bay, which support coldwater fish such as trout and salmon.
The shoreline along Lake Michigan, Green Bay and its tributaries is popular for recreational activities such as hiking, boating and fishing as well as snowmobiling, cross-country skiing and ice fishing. Many state parks and state and federal wildlife areas are scattered throughout the watershed providing camping, trails and hunting opportunities for locals and visitors. The natural resources of the Lower Fox River and Green Bay are important to tourism and the local economy.
People have long used the region for transportation, commerce, energy, food (fish and waterfowl) and recreation. Industries developed rapidly in the Lower Fox River valley due to water availability. The earliest paper mill was established in Appleton in 1853 with the paper industry growing to include 20 paper mills along the 37 miles of the Lower Fox River, which may be the largest concentration of pulp and paper industries in the world.
Starting in the mid-1950s, carbonless copy paper was developed and produced in the Lower Fox River valley. Carbonless copy paper was manufactured between 1954 and 1971, however some other paper mills deinked and recycled the carbonless copy paper and continued to release PCBs through 1980. As a result of these processes, an estimated 70,000 pounds of PCBs were released into the Fox River.
PCBs attach to the sediment in the river and have been carried downstream into Green Bay, and ultimately, Lake Michigan over the decades.
In 1971, PCBs at relatively low concentrations were shown to harm living organisms, leading the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to prohibit the release of PCBs into the environment. PCBs do not readily break down in the environment, and in fact, tend to accumulate at higher and higher concentrations through the food chain.
PCBs are considered probable human carcinogens and are known to cause cancer in animals. PCBs are also linked to adverse health effects in humans such as developmental impairments, reduced birth weight and reduced ability to fight infections. Reproductive failures, deformities, and behavior abnormalities in fish and wildlife have been linked to PCBs.
The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) estimates that approximately 64,000 pounds of PCBs remain in Lower Fox River sediments today.
The DNR, EPA and liable paper companies are responsible for as much cleanup of the PCB contaminated sediment from the environment as is feasible. As part of the efforts to address this cleanup, the DNR, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, Oneida Tribe of Indians of Wisconsin, and the State of Michigan are collectively rehabilitating impacted fish and wildlife and have formed the Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council.
The council has documented injuries to natural resources in the Lower Fox River and Green Bay through the natural resource damage assessment and restoration process (NRDAR). The NRDAR process is part of the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA, more commonly known as Superfund) and is used to restore natural resources injured by releases of hazardous substances.
The term "injury" refers to adverse changes or direct harm to natural resources as a result of this exposure.
Injured resources may also appear as diminished recreational opportunities such as fishing, boating and wildlife viewing. Injuries in the Lower Fox River and Green Bay include surface water, sediment, fish, wildlife and their supporting habitats, recreational fishing, waterfowl hunting, and cultural resources of the Indian tribes of the area.
The process is funded by those found responsible for releasing hazardous substances into the environment, not by taxpayers. Today, funds come from settlements reached with Georgia-Pacific Corp., and interim settlements reached with Appleton Papers, Inc. (Arjo Wiggins), NCR Corporation, P.H. Glatfelter Co., and WTM1 (formerly Wisconsin Tissue Mills). The Trustees have not reached any settlement agreements with the other potential responsible parties, Riverside Papers or U.S. Papers-DePere.
The term "damages" refers to the claim sought by the Trustee Council as compensation for injuries to natural resources. Compensation includes restoration projects by the paper companies and cash settlement to be used by the Trustee Council.
Projects restore the injured natural resources, or, if that is not possible, replace or acquire equivalent resources that were lost or harmed.
The Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council has allocated over $35 million from the settlements. The trustee agencies and partners have provided over $14 million in matching funds.
According to Bruce Baker, DNR representative on the council, "By using NRDAR funds to match funding from other sources, the agencies, local governments and other partners can accomplish projects that any single funding source would have difficulty putting together."
"It is wonderful to see good restoration projects brought to the trustee council for approval," stated Charlie Wooley, FWS representative to the council. "These projects will provide important habitat for natural resources and the Green Bay watershed as a whole."
Read on to learn more about projects supported by NRDAR funding.
Colette Charbonneau is restoration coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Green Bay. For further information on NRDAR projects, e-mail Colette Charbonneau or call her at (920) 866-1726. Greg Hill is implementation coordinator for the DNR.