Superfund Information Systems: Site Profile

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The Lower Fox River, located in northeastern Wisconsin, begins at the Menasha and Neenah channels leading from Lake Winnebago and flows northeast for 39 miles where it discharges into Green Bay and Lake Michigan. Approximately 270,000 people live in the communities along the river. The river has 12 dams and includes the highest concentration of pulp and paper mills in the world. During the 1950s and 1960s, these mills routinely used PCBs in their operations which ultimately contaminated the river.

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What Is the Current Site Status?

When the cleanup is completed in August, it will have addressed more than 6 million cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment across 39 miles of the Lower Fox River, at an estimated cost of $1 billion. Work has been ongoing since 2004 by the companies determined to be responsible for the contamination. Long-term monitoring, which will include studying fish tissue, water, and sediment for PCB concentrations, will be done along the entire river by Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter, two of the companies. All of the work is being done under EPA and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources oversight.  EPA is the lead enforcement agency and WDNR is the lead technical agency.  

Dredging and capping in the East River have also been completed. Cleanup was necessary there after contractors for Georgia-Pacific collected samples north, south and at the confluence of the East and Fox Rivers in 2017 to determine the extent of tar-like material found there. This tar-like material, consisting of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), was the result of manufactured gas plant processes that operated in the area in the early 1900s.  Georgia-Pacific, which is one of the companies responsible for PCB contamination in the Lower Fox River, took these samples because the PAHs were mixed with, or were underneath, the PCB contamination. 

Another company, Wisconsin Public Service Corp., is responsible for the PAHs at a different site called WPSC Green Bay MGP. The Lower Fox River PCB cleanup team dredged sediment in areas of the river where PAHs were located to remove PCB and PAH contamination at the same time. Additional sampling to further investigate this site is planned for 2020.

EPA also completed a status review (PDF)(101 pp, 34MB, About PDF) of the site’s cleanup so far. This type of review is required at least every five years where the cleanup is complete--or ongoing--but hazardous waste remains managed on-site. These reviews are done to ensure that the cleanup continues to protect people and the environment.

The review included an evaluation of background information, cleanup requirements, effectiveness of the cleanup and any anticipated future actions and an analysis of ways for EPA to operate more efficiently.

This was the site’s third five-year review. It concluded that the cleanup is not protecting people and the environment because PCB levels have not yet dropped to safe levels.  It is anticipated that it will take 10-30 years for fish tissue to recover. The next review is scheduled for 2024.











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Emergency Response and Removal

In 1999 and 2000, EPA oversaw a dredging project done by some of the paper companies about 3 miles upstream from the mouth of the Lower Fox River.  It removed 80,000 cubic yards of PCB-contaminated sediment, containing 3,400 pounds of PCBs.

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Enforcement Information

The United States and state of Wisconsin entered into a settlement with two of the companies determined to be responsible for PCB contamination in the Lower Fox River.  Under this settlement, referred to as a consent decree, Glatfelter and Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products have fully resolved their liability for the cleanup and related Superfund litigation. 

The decree became effective on March 14, 2019 when it was “entered” in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin and approved by a judge.  This settlement concluded the litigation that had been ongoing for several years.  

In this latest in a long series of settlements for the Lower Fox River site, Glatfelter paid $20.5 million toward EPA’s unreimbursed past costs and natural resource damages and are paying for all EPA and state costs of overseeing the remaining work.  Glatfelter also dismissed its pending appeal of a separate consent decree that required a prior settler, NCR Corp., to finish all dredging and sediment cap installation work.  Finally, Glatfelter and Georgia-Pacific will perform all required long-term monitoring and cap maintenance work. 

Another consent decree was entered in federal court on Aug. 22, 2017.  The objectives of the decree were to protect public health, welfare or the environment. Under this decree, NCR Corp., one of the companies responsible for PCB contamination in the river, is conducting and paying for all remaining sediment cleanup work. 

EPA and WDNR will continue to oversee the cleanup.

Three other consent decrees for settlements totaling about $55 million were approved in federal court in December 2014. These consent decrees resolved claims against six companies and two municipal sewer system operators for cleanup costs and natural resource damages in the Lower Fox River.

PCBs do not degrade naturally, but instead concentrate in the environment and the food chain resulting in health hazards to people, fish and wildlife. The Lower Fox River project involves the cleanup of sediment contaminated with PCBs, as well as the restoration of the natural resources damaged by these contaminants.                                  

A number of federal, state and tribal agencies have joined efforts to address this important issue through regulatory avenues including Superfund, the Natural Resource Damage Assessment, and state spill authorities.








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