Fox River Pollution

From Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History
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The Fox and Wolf Rivers in Northeastern Wisconsin
Fox and Wolf Rivers. Source: Fox and Wolf Rivers, Wikipedia[1]

Fox River pollution has been an issue in Wisconsin since as early as the early 1900s. The Fox River is a waterway located in the Eastern and Central parts of Wisconsin and spans about 38 miles and connects Lake Winnebago with Green Bay. The Fox River is home to many paper mills that were the backbone of some of Wisconsin’s most famous cities. There are a great number of communities that live along the banks of the Fox River, such as Green Bay and the Fox Cities, that are directly impacted by the pollution that has burdened the once great river. The Fox River is used almost daily for recreational activities, leading to great concern of the contamination in the water for many of these people.

Fox River History

The Fox River had supported a large number of Native Americans before the European settlers arrived in the area. The Natives used the area of fish and other wildlife in the surrounding area, along with other resources. The French were the first European settlers to arrive, among them was the explorer Jean Nicolet. Later on two men known as Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet came to the Fox River to establish important routes between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi River for trading purposes. This waterway would play a large role in the fur trade for the French people.

Industrial Revolution in Wisconsin

The Fox River was a prime location for companies to build factories and such due to the water power that they could harness to power their facilities. The Fox and Wisconsin Improvement Company began to build dams and locks in hopes of making a port city that could rival the economic prosperity of Chicago. Unfortunately that plan never came to fruition due to the shallowness of the water and the fact that the river was frozen over for around 5 months of the year. With the Industrial Revolution came many mills to the Fox River. Flour Mills became big due to Wisconsin being a large producer of wheat. When the wheat production fell, Wisconsin quickly recovered and went to the paper mills for the growing paper industry due to the lumbering areas that were in close proximity.

Pollution Damage

Around the time of the 1950s and 1960s the paper mills that began flourishing along the river started using PCBs in their processes, which began polluting the river. Due to the nature of PCBs, they don’t degrade naturally over time like other forms of waste, leading to a huge problem with the huge amounts of PCB that were brought into the river. Since the PCBs don’t degrade, they instead begin to build up in the environment and start to cause problems for all the living things that use the river, such as humans and the local fish. PCBs are notably dangerous due to the affects that it can have on peoples organs and reproductive systems, PCBs have also been shown to cause certain kinds of cancer.[1] The Fox River contributes to more PCBs in Green Bay and Lake Michigan than any other watershed.[2] In addition to PCB, there were around 350 other chemicals that were present in the water, including dioxins, furans, mercury, DDT, ammonia, various pesticides. Even with all those other chemicals that are in the waters of the Fox River, it was determined by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources that the PCBs pose the greatest threat to humans and the ecosystem.

Clean Up

The initiative to clean up the Fox River didn't just happen over night. In fact it wasn't until the 1920s that people began showing an interest in the condition of the river. After World War II people started seeing the Fox as a place of recreation for activities such as fishing or swimming as well as possible places to start a family.[3] In 1977 the use and discharge of the harmful PCBs were outlawed due to their harmful effects on the environment and those living in the area by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Tetra Tech (a contractor for sediment remediation) aims to clean about 7.5 million cubic yards of PCB contaminated sediment. [4] In attempts to clean up the Fox River, an organization known as the Fox River Cleanup Group chose Tetra Tech as a general contractor of the sediment remediation program for the Lower Fox River, stating that it is currently the biggest project of this nature in the world.[5] The cleanup is using multiple techniques to help reduce the damage that the pollution has done to the river. Dredging is used to remove sediment from the riverbed and the sediment is then dewatered and the resulting material is then sent to a landfill. Capping is another technique that is fundamental to the clean up process. Capping is to add cover to the areas of containing PCB by placing sand and gravel over it. This prevents further PCB contamination in the water. The first six years of the Fox River Cleanup Project, ranging from 2009 to 2014, has made impressive progress with an estimated volume of more than 3.3 million cubic yards of sediment dredged from the Fox River along with around 446 acres of river bottom that has been capped and about 5.2 billion gallons of treated water.[6]


  1. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs),” Wisconsin Department of Health Services, November 23, 2014,
  2. James Hodgson, “PCB Contamination in the Fox River,” Regional Perspectives in Environmental Sciences, 2001,
  3. Gregory Summers, “A River of Paper?” Voyageur Magazine, Summer/Fall 2007
  4. Wisconsin Department of Health Services, “Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs),” Wisconsin Department of Health Services, November 23, 2014,
  5. Tetra Tech, “Fox River Sediment Remediation, Wisconsin,” Tetra Tech, December 1, 2015,
  6. Fox River Cleanup Group, “Project Update,” Fox River Cleanup Group, December 2, 2015,

Archival Resources for Further Research

  • Fox Valley Water Quality Planning Agency Records,1976-1984.
  • The Fox River Coalition : a regional partnership dedicated to cleaning up contaminated sediment and improving water quality in the Fox Valley and Water Pollution Investigation: Lower Green Bay and Lower Fox River.

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