Local author recounts efforts to clean Fox River

Areas were polluted by paper mills

Former wildlife biologist David Allen and former Green Bay Press-Gazette journalist Susan Campbell speak on May 8 at the Peter White Public Library about their new book, “Paper Valley: The Fight For The Fox River Cleanup.” The book details their efforts for the cleanup as well as transparency and public involvement. (Photo courtesy of Darlene T. Allen)

MARQUETTE — An environmental success story with an unusual narrative drives the new book, “Paper Valley: The Fight for the Fox River Cleanup,” about the cleanup of Wisconsin’s Fox River and the bay of Green Bay in Wisconsin and Michigan.

David Allen of Marquette, a former wildlife biologist, authored the book with Susan Campbell, former environmental reporter with the Green Bay Press-Gazette. The book was published in April by Wayne State University Press.

For years, uncontrolled toxic chemicals called PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, were discharged by paper mills into the Fox River in the Fox River Valley in Wisconsin.

The authors’ journey has two parts: 1992 to 2001, when the efforts to get the restoration going took place, and from 2001-20, when the actual cleanup occurred.

In 1992, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Green Bay hired Allen to help facilitate the cleanup since the PCBs were devastating the region. Instead, then Gov. Tommy G. Thompson intervened and told the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources he didn’t want that to happen, Allen said.

“The DNR enthusiastically tried to kick the federal government out of the state,” Allen told The Mining Journal.

So, the USFWS had to decide whether to proceed on its own without the DNR or the Environmental Protection Agency — which, he said, had never been tried before.

“The book is really about the 10-year struggle between the Fish and Wildlife Service and the other agencies to convince them to join a big Superfund project,” Allen said.

It helped that Campbell got on board as a journalist on the environment beat at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, writing hundreds of stories to keep the issue in the public eye.

“At first it was just going to sort of be a factual book about what happened, but it ended up becoming a narrative-driven, character-driven thing where we sort of intertwined our personal stories,” said Allen, who noted the book was written in the first person.

What turned the tide of events was Thompson being appointed secretary of Health and Human Services, Allen said, and the Wisconsin DNR secretary not being reappointed to that post. The situation then turned into the battle between all the governments and the paper mills.

Eventually, the paper companies paid for the $1.3 billion cleanup and restoration, he said. One result has been an improvement in the Fox River, with a 90% decline of PCBs in the sediment and the water, and fish advisories declining quickly.

There have been other consequences as well.

“Economically in Green Bay, the city had always turned their back on the river in terms of a place to live or a place to recreate,” Allen said. “Now, there’s huge development all up and down the Fox River, hundreds of millions of dollars of new development. There’s public walkways, restaurants. They’ve now turned towards the river.”

The initial struggle was something that needed an audience.

“What happened in 2020 was everybody celebrated the finish of the cleanup,” Allen said. “It’s one of the largest cleanups in history. But nobody remembered that the project never would have started without this first 10-year battle.”

So, his colleagues suggested the story be written before it was forgotten — what he said was the impetus for the book.

“It’s almost never true that you have environmental agencies fighting each tooth and nail over something like this,” Allen said. “It’s usually all the agencies on one side and either the paper companies or some responsible party on the other.”

He acknowledged that writing the book was not about the money.

“The real reason that this became important to me was because the story is about how ordinary citizens who mobilized in Green Bay and ordinary civil servants can overcome hot political diatribe,” Allen said.

Philip Zozzaro of Booklist praised the book and its co-authors.

“Together, they write a gripping narrative, their dual perspectives detailing a fuller picture of the destruction wrought by chemical pollution of the Fox River and offering a story equally about the law and the environmental impact of industry,” he wrote in a testimonial. “This is a compelling human-interest tale on par with Erin Brockovich and Jonathan Harr’s ‘A Civil Action.'”

Dave Dempsey, former Michigan policy director of Clean Water Action and author of “Great Lakes for Sale: From Whitecaps to Bottlecaps,” also had good words about the book.

“In a classic tale of the collision between environmental science and environmental politics, this account shows the good guys can win — and so can our environment,” Dempsey said. “Much-needed hope for clean water and air abounds in this book.”

The book can be found in Marquette at Snowbound Books, Amazon and other book sellers. Visit papervalley.org for more information.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 550. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.


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