Litigation Re: Lower Fox River

*/ A river flows past a paper mill. Most of the river is unfit for fishing, swimming or boating as a result of decades of pollution by bordering mills, 07/1973. Courtesy of National Archives

PCB Contamination of Fox River in Wisconsin

Paper mill pollution in the Little Lake Butte des Morts segment of the Fox River in 1970.  Courtesy of The Carl Guell Slide Collection, Department of Geography, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.Between 1954 and 1971, paper producers along the Fox River in northeastern Wisconsin used polychlorinated biphenyls (or PCBs) to make a particular kind of carbonless copy paper, and other paper mills along the River made different products with recycled waste paper that contained PCBs. Those facilities discharged large amounts of PCB-containing wastewater to the River, contaminating sediments in nearly 40 miles of the Fox River and more than 1,000 square miles of the bay of Green Bay.

PCBs do not break down quickly in the natural environment, and PCBs tend to accumulate in fatty tissues in fish, birds, and other animals. The PCB contamination in the Fox River and Green Bay has caused deformities in some birds and reproductive problems in fish and birds, including bald eagles. There also is clear evidence that PCBs cause cancer in animals. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified PCBs as a probable human carcinogen. Due to the PCB problem, the State of Wisconsin has issued human health-based advisories that recommend limited consumption of most types of fish and some ducks from the Fox River and Green Bay.

Enforcement Action

PCB exposures casues bird deformities like the crossed bill in this cormorant.  Courtesy EPA.The Environmental Enforcement Section (EES) has taken a lead role in requiring the cleanup of PCB-contaminated sediments at the Fox River Site and in pursuing recovery of damages for injuries to natural resources in the area.

Dredging, drying and off-site disposal of contaminated sediments began in the uppermost portion of the River in 2004, under a partial settlement that EES negotiated with two paper companies. In 2006, the Section reached another partial settlement with two other paper companies that agreed to remove highly-contaminated sediments that were discovered in a downstream segment of the River.  In November 2007, EPA issued Unilateral Administrative Order (UAO) to eight companies requiring them to complete the selected remedy to clean up the Site and the paper companies began full-scale dredging work in the downstream portions of the River in the summer of 2009. In late 2010, the United States and the State of Wisconsin filed a complaint to ensure continued compliance with the UAO and to obtain other relief.


  • The settlements1with the paper companies also have yielded more than $40 million for natural resource restoration work that has been overseen by the Fox River/Green Bay Natural Resource Trustee Council, which includes representatives of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, and two Native American Tribes. Those settlement recoveries have been used to restore and protect thousands of acres of endangered wetlands in the northeastern Wisconsin and to improve fish habitat and enhance the health and diversity of fish populations in the Fox River/Green Bay watershed.
  • To date, the Section has helped negotiate settlements that have required more than $200 million in polluter-funded cleanup work and natural resource restoration work at and near the Lower Fox River and Green Bay Superfund Site.
An area along the Peshtigo River that has been protected as part of a Fox River legal settlement.  Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


1Cases in which partial settlements have been reached include, as of September 2009, the following: U.S. v. Appleton Papers Inc.; U.S. v. NCR Corp.; U.S. v. Fort James Operating Co.; U.S. v. P.H. Glatfelter Co. and WTM I Co.; U.S. v. NCR Corp. and Sonoco-U.S. Mills, Inc.; and U.S. v. George A. Whiting Paper Co., et al.  All cases are filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin.

In the News

U.S. Files PCB Cleanup Lawsuit Against 12 Polluters of Wisconsin’s Fox River. October 14, 2010

Companies to Spend $30 Million on PCB Cleanup at the Lower Fox River and Green Bay Superfund Site. April 12, 2006

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Updated April 13, 2015

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