Tons of Toxins, Tons of Money

Rural town weighs costs, benefits of Fox River sludge landfill plan

Last Updated: Feb. 22, 2003

De Pere – Farmer Gary Huss could be about to play host to one of the state’s biggest toxic messes.

Quotable: "I don't think we have a lot of say-so on it. We're outnumbered." - David Gilson, area resident

And that is news to him – even though he subscribes to three local newspapers and watches the TV news every night.

“I never heard a thing,” said the 61-year-old dairy farmer whose property bumps into a piece of Brown County-owned land being considered for a dump to hold millions of tons of PCB-tainted sludge from the nearby Fox River. “Not a word.”

That’s the bad news.

The good news is that his southern Brown County town of 1,200 might reap as much as $50 million in the plan to clean up the hazardous polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, dumped into the lower Fox River by seven area paper companies from the 1950s to the 1970s.

In December 1998, Brown County officials signed a deal with the Town of Holland that will give the farming community $10 for every ton of “PCB-impacted sediment” it receives from the river. Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources officials have said as much as 5 million tons of sludge from the lower Fox River could ultimately be deposited in a landfill as part of its plan to clean up the river.

Many who live in the Holland area had no idea the DNR was looking at piping river waste to the neighborhood. The agency is eyeing its popular Fox River State Trail as the place to put the pipeline.

“I’m really perturbed,” said Gerald Coenen, another nearby property owner. Like Huss, Coenen said he learned of the pipeline proposal only this month, even though the DNR closed its public comment on the matter more than a year ago.

“You really have no say against these people,” he said.

DNR officials stress that a landfill site has yet to be selected, but they acknowledge they are focusing on the sparsely populated southern end of Brown County, which sits atop a 100-foot-deep layer of clay – ideal for hazardous material storage. And they have been talking with Brown County officials about the county-owned parcel in Holland.

An incomplete plan

Just over a year ago, the DNR released its “proposed” plan for cleaning the river of the PCBs, which were used in carbonless copy paper. PCBs are considered probable cancer-causing agents and have been linked to low IQ scores and immune system defects.

The agency’s proposed cleanup for the last seven miles of the river – by far the most contaminated – calls for building a pipeline from the river near downtown Green Bay to a landfill. But the proposal doesn’t identify the path the pipeline would follow, or where the landfill would be located.

More specifics may come when the agency releases its final plan for the cleanup this summer.

But DNR officials recently acknowledged that they would like to put the pipeline along the Fox River bike trail, which was converted from an abandoned railroad line in 2000. Last summer the DNR signed an $18,435-per-year agreement with the Wisconsin Central railroad for the right to lay pipeline in the rail corridor.

While the DNR says it doesn’t yet know where the landfill would be located, prior agreements have paved the way for the county-owned Holland site:

In 1995, the DNR received a waiver from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency giving the DNR authority to approve landfills for PCB storage.
The next year, Brown County received preliminary approval from the DNR to build an industrial “monofill” on the county-owned property in Holland. The monofill was approved to take 3.7 million cubic yards of non-hazardous sludge from area paper mills, said county solid waste director Chuck Larscheid.
The paper mills never took the county up on its monofill offer, but the monofill plans remained in place. In 1998, county officials offered the Town of Holland $10 for every ton of PCB river sediment that ended up in the monofill.
Then, in 2001, the DNR included in its “proposed alternative” to clean up the most polluted stretch of river the need for a monofill that will hold about 4.5 million cubic yards of river sediment, a bit bigger than the the 3.7 million-cubic-yard monofill the county was already approved for.

DNR deputy administrator Bruce Baker said the county-owned Holland site is “definitely” being looked at.

“It’s going to come down to cost,” he said.

That’s one reason why the county site is appealing – unlike private landowners, the county has an interest in making the cleanup as cheap as possible.

No deals have been signed, but county officials have been working with the DNR.

The paper companies will be billed for the river cleanup, estimated at $308 million. Some county officials worry that if the cost is too high, the paper companies will close or move their operations away from the Fox River Valley.

“The primary goal for every person living along the Fox River ought to be to get that river cleaned up at the lowest possible cost, provided it has no negative impact on any other aspect of our environment,” said County Executive Nancy Nusbaum. “It seems to me we almost have a moral obligation to be part of the solution.”

Not everyone agrees.

Holland Town Board chairman Jerome Wall inked the deal with the county that clears the way for the PCBs to flow into his town, but he doesn’t appear too happy about it.

“We didn’t have much of a choice. We got that landfill shoved down our throats,” he said.

He declined to comment further and referred all inquiries to town-hired lawyer George Marek.

Marek said there was ample public notice of the meetings prior to the 1998 agreement, and the public hearings on the issue were well attended by town residents. He also said at least one public hearing in the town will be required before plans for the monofill could move forward.

‘Totally ridiculous’

Other Brown County leaders say they have been blindsided on the issue.

County Supervisor Alice Daul, who chairs the county’s planning and development committee, said she never heard a word about the deal to pay Holland to take the PCBs or the plan to use the popular bike path corridor for the pipeline until it appeared in the Journal Sentinel earlier this month.

“It’s totally ridiculous,” she said.

The DNR stresses that its pipeline/landfill proposal is not the only cleanup option. The agency is also considering a plan to burn the waste, but at this point that process appears prohibitively expensive.

Agency officials say the pipeline plan hinges on finding a nearby landfill because that dramatically reduces transportation costs.

“If we can’t get an acceptable landfill, it’s going to mean we either don’t clean up the Fox River, or the costs are going to be extremely high, to the point of having serious consequences for the (paper) companies,” said DNR’s Baker. “Something has to give.”

That could be the neighbors along the Fox River Trail and those who live near the proposed landfill. Many are miffed that the agency has not been more forthright about its designs.

“It appears to be so surreptitious,” said Patricia Greene, whose backyard straddles the trail.

Watching all this with no small amount of discomfort is Rebecca Katers, director of the Clean Water Action Council, which has been pushing for river cleanup for more than a decade.

She supports the landfill/pipeline plan, but she knows it isn’t a popular option with everyone.

“Most people intuitively believe it’s just moving the problem from one place to another . . . but that really is not the case. They will be containing this stuff permanently and getting it out of circulation,” she said.

Some southern Brown County residents appear resigned to the fact that the PCBs are headed their way.

“I don’t think we have a lot of say-so on it,” said David Gilson, who lives on a Holland-area farm he inherited from his mother. “We’re outnumbered.”

During Tuesday’s elections, Dorothy Van de Wettering was staffing Holland’s tiny one-room Town Hall, which has no running water. Asked what the town would do with all the millions it might make off the landfill, she looked around, then smiled and said, “Well, we don’t have a bathroom.”

A version of this story appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Feb. 23, 2003.