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Fox PCB Update
Thursday, February 4, 2010
 
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FOX PCB UPDATE
IN WISCONSIN REPORTS
Paper companies once contaminated Wisconsin’s rivers with the toxic chemical PCBs.  For the past ten years, environmental cleanup crews have been dredging the Fox River.  The project is now in its final phase and includes a stretch from DePere to Green Bay.  In Wisconsin’s Art Hackett reports on the cleanup as seen through the eyes of  a professor who has been studying PCBs and their effects on wildlife for most of his career.
Fox PCB Update
TRANSCRIPT
Patty Loew:
“Spoiling it” might best describe this environmental dilemma. For years Wisconsin paper companies and the government have been locked in a legal battle over the cancer-causing PCBs in the Fox River. Even though the lawsuits remain, the cleanup is actually ahead of schedule. "In Wisconsin" reporter Art Hackett has been covering this issue for more than two decades and he's still on the story in De Pere.

Man:
I've watched the dredging outside my door down here.

Art Hackett:
Bud Harris lives just up the hill from the Fox River. The dredges are part of the effort to rid the Fox of PCBs. Harris has been watching PCBs for most of his professional career.

Bud Harris:
PCBs, we knew they were there but the issue was ok, so what are the real effects?

Art Hackett:
He is emeritus professor of natural sciences at UW-Green Bay.

Bud Harris:
Some of my graduate students, most of them worked on the west shore, wetlands. And we worked with birds. And I remember the students began to find some deformed birds.

Art Hackett:
The deformed beaks made good pictures but Harris says people have forgotten the larger concern.

Bud Harris:
What we were looking at was the reproductive success.

Bud Harris (in footage from 1984):
If these materials are having toxic effects in these animals, there's every reason to believe that at some level they will have it in humans, too. Yes, I think it's a very real concern.

Bud Harris:
It became clear it was getting a life of its own and they began looking at sediments at that point.

Art Hackett:
For a 30-year period beginning around 1954, PCBs were an ingredient a few of the mills used to make paper. Some used scraps of the paper to make other products. PCBs washed out of the mills, into the water and settled in the sediment. Ten years ago, while attorneys for paper companies battled over who was responsible for paying the bills, the DNR studied whether it was possible to dredge sediments out of the river without making the problem worse. The answer was yes. The dredging of PCBs from the Fox River has now reached industrial scale. At times, the two dredges have operated at the end of pipelines stretching for 10 miles.

Art Hackett:
What is the brown stuff on the top?

Man:
That's the sediment.

Art Hackett:
Just as the paper machines operated continuously turning fibers into paper, the sediment never stops between the time when the dredge pumps it into the pipeline and the time when it drops into a pile awaiting a truck ride to a landfill.

Ray Mangrum:
This is kind of a unique situation because nobody has ever set a process up like this without some kind of buffer between the dredges and the process unit. It's never been done before. That's something we're very proud of.

Art Hackett:
Because the PCBs are attached to organic matter such as dried leaves and wood, rocks and sand sucked up by the dredges has to be screened out. Some of it can be reused as construction material. The biggest surprise has been how little sand and gravel the dredges picked up.

Ray Mangrum:
All the analytical data showed about 40% sand. We only get about 15%.

Art Hackett:
Which means that while the process is more efficient, the project will be more expensive since the organic material has to be landfilled, sand does not.

Ray Mangrum:
PCBs stick to the organic matter, not the sand.

Art Hackett:
The organic materials go in a large, funnel shaped tank and are mixed with a chemical that causes them to stick together.

Brian Delaney:
As the pieces start to adhere to each other, they fall out.

Art Hackett:
The material is pumped into huge presses that force out the water, leaving nearly dry wafers of PCB-contaminated cake. The project will ultimately remove 3.8 million cubic yards of material from the river bed. In addition, 500 acres of contaminated river bottom will be capped with an isolating layer of sand and crushed rock.

Ray Mangrum:
We're on schedule seven years for dredging, two additional years for capping. My goal is to complete at least a year in advance. We're ahead of schedule now and we project to stay ahead of schedule.

Art Hackett:
The decision to cap areas which were too difficult or expensive to dredge was controversial. But environmental scientist Bud Harris says he accepts it as part of the solution.

Bud Harris:
I would never be a proponent of only capping but one of the things we knew pretty early on, is that even with dredging you're going to get residual. You cannot, you'll never get it all. It's not like vacuuming under the rug, you know.

Art Hackett:
So far Harris says the cleanup process appears to be working. The US Environmental Protection Agency recently released a review of the first five years of the project. This involved a lake near Menasha. The EPA’s measurements showed remaining PCB concentrations of .22 parts per million. That is below EPA standards.

Bud Harris:
If, in fact, they get the sediment concentrations in the river to the .2, I believe it probably will be protective of most of the wildlife.

Man:
About eight pounds.

Bud Harris:
My concern is more in terms of the long term monitoring. Not only monitoring the security of those caps, I think it's terribly important, they need to be monitored. You have to monitor the effectiveness of the whole process.

Jay Grosskopf:
We certainly don't anticipate major disturbance in the caps.

Art Hackett:
Jay Grosskopf is with Bolt Construction. The DNR has contracted with Bolt to monitor the dredging and the effectiveness of the cleanup.

Jay Grosskopf:
We're really looking at successive generations of fish and the water fowl and other things in terms of are the PCBs being eliminated from the parent, in turn not being passed on to the offspring.

Art Hackett:
The question is for how long.

Jay Grosskopf:
There isn't a defined timetable yet. There's a goal to eliminate the fish advisories and the water fowl advisories and we don't know if that's gonna take 10 years or 50 years. It's a hard thing to present to the public, you know, unknown is always hard to present to the public.

Art Hackett:
The cleanup process still has at least seven years to run. And then there will be a wait for the food chain to clear itself.

Bud Harris:
The models suggest that half a life of five years so...

Art Hackett:
Bud Harris ran through a  calculation of how long it will take to clear microorganisms and then fish and then birds.

Bud Harris:
You can begin to project that out so what do you have to get in the water column to be protective? About two parts per trillion. That's another four decades.

Art Hackett:
Two parts per trillion of a compound that entered first the river in 1954.

Bud Harris:
By 2054 there shouldn't be any fish advisories at that time.

Art Hackett:
That's 100 years.

Bud Harris:
Yes, that's 100 years.

Patty Loew:
Last December a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit asking 20 companies to pay for the $875 million cleanup. Instead, Judge William Griesbach found Appleton Papers and NCR Corporation the most responsible for the PCB problem. Because they continued mass production using the chemicals even after they knew the risk. Cleanup is needed now to prevent the remaining PCBs from entering Lake Michigan.
 
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