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In Wisconsin: Fox River cleanup, legal wrangling appear to be winding down

GREEN BAY, Wisconsin (From news reports) -- It's looking more and more like the cleanup of the Fox River will come to a close at nearly the same time as the legal wrangling over who pays for it.

The dredging and capping operation near the mouth of the river is nearly finished for the season, according to Scott Stein, spokesman for Tetra Tech, the prime contractor for the cleanup. Workers will head out again in the spring for what could be the last year of dredging on the Lower Fox River, a project that began in 2009, south of the De Pere dam, and slowly worked downstream.

Workers from the subcontractor, J. F. Brennan Co. of La Crosse, are removing sediment contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the river bottom, treating the water and landfilling the dredgings.

The toxic PCBs were used in the production of carbonless copy paper in the 1950s and 1960s and were spread through the manufacturing of recycled paper products.

The paper companies responsible for the pollution have been fighting in court over the payment of the cleanup process. It was thought that legal battle would continue years after the cleanup, but developments this year may cut that short.

The U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency have worked out a settlement agreement with the last of the major players in the fight, and a federal judge recently signed off on it.

Under the agreement:

» NCR, which produced the carbonless copy paper, is agreeing to take sole responsibility for the remaining cost of cleanup, estimated at $200 million over the next couple years. That's over and above the $668 million that NCR and Appvion have already spent for cleanup and in natural resource restoration penalties. Appvion, formerly Appleton Papers, bought NCR's Fox Valley paper production business in the 1970s.

» NCR and Appvion waive all claims for cost recovery from the other companies, specifically from Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter, which discharged PCBs when they recycled carbonless copy paper.

» Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter will bear primary responsibility for long-term monitoring and maintenance of the cleanup, with NCR providing a backup role. That's expected to cost about $40 million.

» Glatfelter will be the sole remaining defendant in the federal government's claims for recovery of the $34 million it has spent on oversight costs, and up to $30 million in future costs.

Under the agreement, NCR and Appvion -- primarily NCR, after Appvion's successful court action specifically against that company in the past few years -- will be responsible for 65 percent of the total cost. Georgia-Pacific and Glatfelter will each be responsible for 12 percent. Remaining companies, municipalities, agencies and waste-water treatment facilities have previously agreed to cover 11 percent of the total estimated cost.

Back in January, when the agreement was first proposed, a Georgia-Pacific spokesman heralded it as good news that fairly put most of the blame on NCR.

Glatfelter has appealed the order approving the agreement, which it complained was simply letting NCR off the hook. U.S. Eastern District Judge William Griesbach, who signed off on the agreement, had dismissed Glatfelter's objections as being "not persuasive."

NCR is expected to continue cleanup work during the appeal, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

"The parties are waiting for the judge to rule on motions on whether Glatfelter's must reimburse approximately $35 million in past government costs, as well as any future government costs of overseeing the remaining cleanup work," the justice department spokesman said.

Meanwhile, this year's cleanup efforts on the river accomplished just a bit less than last year, which had been deemed an average year, according to Stein.

Workers dredged 504,684 cubic yards of sediment, about 36,000 cubic yards less than last year. They treated 860 million gallons of water, a bit less than the 906 million gallons treated and discharged last year. And they hauled 317,549 tons of material to the landfill, compared to 359,843 tons last year.

****

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