Green Bay – The workhorse in the biggest and most expensive phase to clean up the Fox River is a massive building rising from the banks of the river.
Operating like a factory, the 242,000-square-foot facility will extract chemical compounds from river sediments for an estimated seven years and send them away in scores of dump trucks every day.
After years of jockeying and extensive planning, the actual processing of the contaminated sediments starts in May – making the Fox and the Hudson River in New York the largest remediation projects in the country.
The Fox is the largest single source of polychlorinated biphenyls on Lake Michigan.
PCBs have long posed health risks to humans who consume fish that live in affected waters. Pulp and paper makers used PCBs for nearly two decades until the chemicals were outlawed in 1976.
Now, as the building takes shape, documents recently made available show the cleanup will cost polluting companies hundreds of millions of dollars more.
Environmentalists have long complained the project will rely too generously on a cheaper alternative that covers polluted sediments – rather than dredging and removing them.
But state Department of Natural Resources records reveal that the most recent estimates, using a combination of capping and dredging, have jumped to $750 million.
This is an increase of more than $200 million from contractors’ estimates used only a few months ago.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Hudson River cleanup could also cost up to $750 million.
A spokesman for General Electric Co., which is responsible for the Hudson work, declined to discuss the cost, other than to say that GE has spent $385 million so far.
The DNR said the costs of the Fox cleanup have risen as more has been learned about how to rid PCBs from a river with the highest concentration of pulp and paper plants in the world.
The irony of the polluted Fox is that despite its troubles, the river is prized for fishing. Even in mid-November, fishing boats troll the cold, gray river for walleye and musky.
Walleye fishing generates $6.2 million annually for the local economy, according to the DNR.
Last year, anglers caught 172,341 walleye. But only 57,000 fish were kept, the DNR said.
“Most people won’t eat the fish from the river itself – it’s ingrained into their head,” said Fran Barbeau, the owner of Fathead Fran’s Bait Shop in Green Bay.
He said that not only those who love the river, but the entire community will welcome the sediments’ removal “because it is going to help our whole economy.”