Final Disposal of PCB Sludge a New Problem

Posted Aug. 03, 2003

By Dan Wilson
Post-Crescent staff writer

TOWN OF HOLLAND — If Sue Van Abel had a choice, she’d forego $64 million in revenue for her town if it meant tons of contaminated river sludge didn’t come with it.

That’s how much money this community of 1,350 in southern Brown County stands to reap if state and federal officials determine that the local landfill is the best spot for PCB-laced sediment slated to be dredged out of the Fox River during the next decade.

“The money doesn’t impress me one bit,” said Van Abel, who works at the family-owned Van Abels of Hollandtown, a supper club and banquet facility.

“It seems to me you could just leave them where they are; putting them in the ground just doesn’t make any sense.”

It could be a year before a decision is made, said Bruce Baker of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, who is managing the river cleanup.

“There have been no negotiations or decisions,” he said.

The town’s landfill is on the short list of disposal options listed in the Record of Decision issued last week by the DNR and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The ROD outlines a $400 million cleanup plan for the lower Fox River between Little Rapids, north of Wrightstown, and Green Bay.

The plan calls for dredging 6.4 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the northernmost stretch of the river.

PCBs are toxic contaminants that made their way into the river in the 1950s to 1970s as a waste byproduct of carbonless copy paper production. They have been shown to cause birth defects and cancer in lab animals and are considered probable human carcinogens.

For every cubic yard of waste that might go into the county-owned landfill, the town would receive $10. That comes to just over $47,000 per man, woman and child. The town’s annual budget is less than $300,000.

Like Van Abel, however, Mike Geiger, a town supervisor who also serves on a town-appointed monitoring committee to track the landfill issue, is more concerned about the PCBs than he is enamored with the dollars.

“For two or three years or however long it takes to do the cleanup it will be all done and we are going to have the PCBs in our back yard,” said Geiger. “Would you allow me to dig up your back yard and bury a ton of PCBs there for $10?

“So if anyone else is willing to take them, they can have them,” he said.

Leaving the PCBs in place is one of three options outlined in the ROD.

Under that scenario, the PCBs would be capped right where they are in the river. That technology could only be used in limited sections of the river and would require some kind of long-term monitoring.

The second option is to use vitrification or glassification, burning the PCBs at a high temperature resulting in the production of a glassy substance that can be marketed as road aggregate.

Then there is the landfill scenario. As the PCBs are dredged from the river, they would be pumped — along with a lot of water — to a landfill site, where the water would be siphoned off and treated and the PCBs would remain behind.

Holland, with its clay subsoil in some areas over 100 feet deep, is suited to the task. It also would require a 20-mile pipeline.

That was thought to be a possibility when Brown County sited a 1,560-acre parcel in Holland and agreed, in 1998, through negotiations with town officials, to pay the town $10 for every ton of waste. So far the site is untouched.

Brown County Executive Carol Kelso said Friday that disposal plans are all preliminary. “Before, we were dealing in the abstract and we didn’t know the extent of the dredging. There is a potential site here, but we have not had any discussions yet.”

That would all have to be piped to the landfill site for treatment.

“We also have the possibility of siting a landfill in a similar location,” Baker said.

The only other landfill site that has been targeted for disposal of PCBs is in Winnebago County’s Town of Vinland. That landfill will take PCB sludge from the Little Lake Butte des Morts section of the river and is owned by Georgia-Pacific Corp. How much compensation the Town of Vinland will receive for that disposal remains to be negotiated.

Dredging of that portion of the river is scheduled to begin next year. Any work on the section between Wrightstown and Green Bay is still about three years away and then will take another five years to seven years to complete.

According to Baker, the seven paper companies are footing the bill for the estimated $400 million cleanup, and they will be negotiating with the state and the EPA on the final plans, which may or may not include the Holland site.

Those involved in the process are still trying to refine the relative costs of each option.

Baker said the result could be a hybrid plan.

“A lot of people think that is what is going to happen, that it will be a combination of two or three options,” he said.

Dan Wilson can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 304, or by e-mail at dwilson@