River is rife with PCBs
Written by Milwaukee Journal Sentinel   
Wednesday, 05 October 2005 11:13

Tom Reep, 40, has lived along Lincoln Park and the adjoining Milwaukee River his whole life. As a youngster, he fished and swam in the river - long before he learned that a banned family of chemicals known as PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, had been trickling into it for decades.


The state Department of Natural Resources says it has been aware of PCB-contaminated fish in the river going back to the 1970s, and studies in the mid-1990s confirmed the presence of PCBs in the water and sediment along the park.


But years have passed and still no work has started to remove the contaminants from the river and a tributary, Lincoln Creek, leaving Reep and others frustrated.

"They had enough information . . . to know exactly what they were contending with," he said. "There was no question in anyone's mind that this was a health risk hazard.

"Children are over at the edge of the fishing pier and sometimes they are knee-deep in mud."

But DNR officials also insist that they are anxious to clean up the river - a project the agency estimates could cost up to $36.1 million.

Until that work is done, state officials say, they want to mount a better public education campaign for those who fish and play along Lincoln Park.

The state has ordered construction of 171 signs for the park. The signs, in English, Spanish and Hmong, will tell anglers of the potential health hazards of eating fish from the river and warn park users not to walk on the riverbed, according to the Department of Health and Family Services.

Also, in about a week, the DNR and local government units will ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for emergency funding to start cleaning up the pollutants, though DNR officials are reluctant to say when the work could begin.

Why? The business of cleaning up toxic hot spots can be a protracted affair, slowed by years of planning and engineering and the high cost of the work. In the case of the tainted stretches along Lincoln Park, officials also have no idea who dumped PCBs in the river in the first place.

Lincoln Creek snakes through the city's north side until it flows sluggishly into the river.

Factories have long operated in the creek's watershed. They used the PCBs to cut metal and build machines that were the foundations of the city's industrial might. The chemicals were banned in 1977, and many of the factories, machine shops and tool and die businesses that dotted the area are vacant today.

Eventually, PCBs wended their way into the Milwaukee River. Contamination could have occurred from direct dumping. But a more likely scenario is that chemicals entered the creek by running off a factory floor and into a storm drain, or washing into the creek from adjacent land, said Jim Schmidt, a remediation supervisor with the DNR.

An earlier study said that PCBs were likely to have come from an area between N. 46th St. on the west and Teutonia Ave. on the east, but Schmidt said, "We don't have a smoking gun."

To find the polluter, he said, the DNR will have to seek funding to pay for crews to start the laborious task of popping manhole covers and tracing the source of the contaminants, which degrade little over time.

The DNR found in a study released in August that PCBs have settled in layers more deeply into the Milwaukee River's sediments than previously known.

The study also found that the sheer volume of PCBs is greater there than anywhere on the river. The findings came from a $125,000 study released in August and paid for by the EPA.

To clean up the PCBs, sediments would be removed or capped on parts of the creek below Green Bay Ave. and sections of the river to the Estabrook Dam. The most toxic hot spots are the westernmost channel of the river along the park and in sediments in front of the Blatz Pavilion at W. Hampton Ave.

The findings are important because as PCBs move through the water and pile up in the sediments, they join the river's food chain.

For humans, the most immediate danger is eating too many fish contaminated with PCBs, which the EPA has labeled as a probable human carcinogen.

In the Milwaukee River system, where PCBs are found up and down the river, the only spot with higher levels of PCBs is Cedar Creek in Ozaukee County, the DNR says.

But progress has moved too slowly for a problem with broad public health implications, according to neighbors and a local public official.

"The DNR seems to have had a very nonchalant attitude about this," said Milwaukee County Supervisor James White, who represents the area.

For about five years, White said, he has been sitting in on meetings on PCBs and another issue, repairs to the aging Estabrook Dam, with the DNR and other local officials.

"It's been going on for years - it's like beating a dead horse," agreed Ruth Varnado, executive director of the Lincoln Park Community Center.

According to state public health officials, infants and children of women who have eaten a lot of contaminated fish may have lower birth weights and impairments in their physical and learning development.

PCBs may also affect reproduction and the immune system. Direct contact with PCBs can be a hazard as well if sediments are ingested, but officials say the biggest risk is eating fish.

Both White and Reep say they have demanded warning signs along the river for years. White recalls a meeting as far back as 2000 where he made such a request.

But Sharon Gayan, the DNR's Milwaukee River basin supervisor, and William G. Wawrzyn, a fisheries biologist with the DNR, who attended that meeting, said they do not recall such a request.

They added, however, that state and local health officials put up some warning signs in about 2000, although most were vandalized.

While progress seems to have gone slowly, the DNR says it has made considerable strides. Two previous studies, in 1997 and 1999, helped drive the process forward, though the data were not detailed enough to send crews into the river and launch a cleanup, Gayan said.

She said that employees logged 2,500 to 3,500 hours on the project between 2000 and 2005, and that it took nearly a year to design a study for last month's report that had the scientific rigor to satisfy the EPA - a possible source of future funding for the project.

Funding, in fact, has been a key hang-up for the project.

In Wisconsin, PCBs are being cleaned up in several locations, including Cedar Creek and the Sheboygan and Fox rivers. In each case, the DNR or the EPA has identified companies responsible for the pollution.

"The big difference is that you have ongoing parties with the wherewithal to do a cleanup," said Charles Krohn, a regional water leader with the DNR. In Lincoln Creek, we don't have a responsible party."

The Fox is one of the largest PCB projects in the country. The DNR estimates that it will cost $400 million before all of the work is done.

On Cedar Creek, Krohn said, PCB contaminants were turning up in samples in the mid-1980s. Two companies, Mercury Marine and Amcast Industrial Corp., have paid millions of dollars for cleanup work.

Ironically, as more is learned about the severity of PCB problems, the Milwaukee River is getting cleaner and the fishery continues to improve.

"Ten years ago, there wasn't much living in that river," Wawrzyn said.

Smallmouth bass are rebounding. The DNR is reintroducing walleye. Trout and salmon from Lake Michigan make spawning runs as far north as Grafton, Wawrzyn said.

That's brought more people to the river to fish - and has raised worries that some anglers are eating too many of the fish they catch.

"I am flabbergasted," Wawrzyn said. "I see the population that's fishing out there. I see whole families. I see them keep everything. . . . That's a concern."

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