PCB Disaster Benefits Door County

The environmental disaster created when Fox Valley paper companies dumped 250,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the Lower Fox River between 1954 and 1971 has resulted in unintended benefits for Door County in the form of land preservation and habitat restoration projects.

PCBs are a manmade chemical that, due to non-flammability and electrical-insulating properties, had a 50-year commercial run – from 1927 until their use was banned by an act of Congress in 1976 (Toxic Substances Control Act, which allowed a three-year phaseout, so the actual ban began in 1979) – in a wide variety of products, from electrical equipment to carbonless copy paper. The Fox River contamination was a result of the carbonless paper produced by various Fox Valley papermakers.

PCBs were banned because they were found to cause cancer in laboratory animals and are suspected to have the same carcinogenic effect on humans. Studies have also shown PCBs affect the immune system, cause liver damage and affect reproduction and fetal development.

Researchers estimate the 250,000 pounds of PCBs released contaminated 11 tons of sediment, and that more than half of the total amount, or 160,000 pounds, have entered Green Bay and Lake Michigan, where they are virtually impossible to recover.

Remediation efforts have been going on in Little Lake Butte des Morts and the lower Fox River since 2008. The responsible parties, as the paper companies are referred to, kicked in about $38 million in interim assessments for what is called the Fox River Natural Resources Damage Assessment (NRDA) fund.

“Our partners have gone out and gotten another $40 million of funds,” said Betsy Galbraith, Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council Coordinator with the Wisconsin Ecological Services Field Office of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

“When you think of cumulative projects, that’s $80 million worth of restoration projects going to benefit our ecosystem. That’s really neat to be able to share that information.”

In Door County, the partners she refers to are The Nature Conservancy, Door County Conservation Dept. and the Door County Land Trust. The details for the restoration fund were hashed out in 2003.

“I can’t say enough about the groups in Door County. They have been excellent to work with,” Galbraith said. “The original intent was to get as much as we could around the lower Fox and around Green Bay, but we haven’t been able to do much land restoration there. It was more cost effective to work on the west shore of Green Bay and Door County, where there were restoration projects that needed to be done. We do place more priority on the bay, but we have done a few projects on the Lake Michigan side. We’ve done quite a bit on Washington Island, too.”

“We used the NRDA funds to help purchase and establish the Lautenbach Woods Preserve in Egg Harbor on County G, and also to purchase land on Little Lake on Washington Island and on Detroit Island as part of the Detroit Harbor State Natural Area,” said Terrie Cooper, land program director of the Door County Land Trust. “These lands provide important habitat for migratory and wetland birds, help buffer and filter runoff of nutrients and sediment from the adjacent shoreline to protect the water quality and fisheries of Green Bay.”

“We submitted a set of projects that included some land acquisition in the Northern Door area,” said Mike Grimm of The Nature Conservancy of Door County. “We also did some restoration projects. They accepted the proposals and we did acquire some tracts of land, primarily in the Mink River area, by Ellison Bay.”

Galbraith said there may be more projects down the road as additional settlements are reached with the paper companies. However, there is no current litigation with the paper companies.

“There will be an end someday. I think it will be a decade down the road,” she said. “It’s a process where we keep restoration going on the ground from settlements reached in court.”