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An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution

Déjà vu on the Sheboygan River: Transitioning from Cleanup to Restoration in Wisconsin

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Looking upstream on the Sheboygan River from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This section of the river was dredged in 2011 to remove sediment contaminated with PCBs and PAHs.

Looking upstream on the Sheboygan River from the Pennsylvania Avenue Bridge in downtown Sheboygan, Wisconsin. This section of the river was dredged in 2011 to remove sediment contaminated with PCBs and PAHs. (NOAA/Jessica Winter)

One of my first introductions to the problems of environmental contamination was Wisconsin’s Sheboygan River. It empties into Lake Michigan, a rich recreational, commercial, and ecological area, but unfortunately, the Sheboygan has suffered from a past filled with toxic chemicals. As an intern in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes National Program Office in 2006, I visited this scenic river in eastern Wisconsin to learn about the techniques used for cleaning up the river’s contaminated sediments. At the time, I didn’t know that I would return with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration to work on the restorative process that follows cleanup: natural resource damage assessment.

A Superfund Site in the Making

Throughout the 20th century, industrial facilities released the hazardous chemicals polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), metals, and more into the Sheboygan River and adjacent floodplains. These chemicals have been measured at high concentrations in the river sediments and fish, limiting the public’s ability to use and enjoy the Sheboygan River for years. For example, resident fish and waterfowl from the river are unsafe to eat because the high contaminant levels exceed U.S. Department of Agriculture standards. To address this contamination, the EPA’s Superfund Division has designated the lower 14 miles of the Sheboygan River and the adjacent floodplains for cleanup.

On my most recent visit to the river in the fall of 2012, cleanup crews were in their final season of work on a project that has been underway for many years, beginning with emergency sediment removal in 1978. But how do you actually “clean” a polluted river like the Sheboygan?

"Geotubes," show here filled with sediment, were used to remove contaminants from Sheboygan river sediments. In the background, pipes collected weepwater which oozed out of the geotubes and left behind contaminated sediments. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

“Geotubes,” show here filled with sediment, were used to remove contaminants from Sheboygan river sediments. In the background, pipes collected weepwater which oozed out of the geotubes and left behind contaminated sediments. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

For the upstream stretch of the river, completed in 2006–2007, a crew had to suck up contaminated sediments from the riverbed, suspend them in water so they flow as slurry, and then pump the slurry through a pipeline. Next, they pumped it into “geotubes,” large porous bags that allow the river water to seep out but keep the sediment and solid pollutants inside. A wastewater treatment plant removed any remaining contamination from the water. Once the sediment was dry enough, it was transported to a specially designed hazardous waste landfill. Cleanup in the downstream stretch of the river in 2011–2012 used similar methods, as well as an excavator to scoop up some of the sediments and embedded pollutants.

Gearing up for Restoration

As this cleanup was winding down, my NOAA colleagues and I traveled to Sheboygan, Wis., to meet with other federal and state scientists studying the affected area. NOAA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources serve as trustees for the public while conducting a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA). During this process, the trustees collect and evaluate data to identify the natural resources that have been injured by contamination and to quantify the resulting injuries to the environment. For example, injuries might include increased tumor rates in fish or reduced prey available for fish to eat. Luckily for us, the Sheboygan River is well-studied; we have data investigating animal populations and habitat quality from the 1970s to the present.

Fish consumption advisories, as seen posted here along the river, have been in place on the Sheboygan River since 1979.

Fish consumption advisories, as seen posted here along the river, have been in place on the Sheboygan River since 1979. (Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources/Vic Pappas)

Once the trustees know precisely what the injuries are from this pollution, they work with the public to choose projects that will address those injuries. For example, this might include creating or enhancing wetlands that will provide better areas for fish to find food. Trustees then require the parties responsible for the contamination either to fund or implement these restoration projects themselves.

In 2012, this restoration process kicked off when the trustees undertook a preliminary assessment. They examined the current state of scientific information on the Sheboygan River’s sediments, soils, water, invertebrates, fish, birds, mammals, and reptiles to determine whether it is reasonable to pursue a full damage assessment, which would compensate the public for the natural resources hurt by the Sheboygan’s history of toxic chemicals. The preassessment screen [PDF] documents this work.

What did they conclude after the preliminary assessment? That injury to these resources was likely and that damage assessment is warranted. Next, the trustees will develop an Assessment Plan that will describe the methods that will be used to quantify damages. Trustees will invite the public to comment on the Assessment Plan. Stay tuned and check out the links below to access data and documents related to this site.

Data

  • Query Manager database: This is the general informational page for Query Manager, NOAA’s database and query tool for environmental chemistry data. Follow the link to the download page to obtain the database, map, and dictionary for Great Lakes data (which includes Sheboygan River and Harbor data) and to obtain the Query Manager software for interacting with the database.
  • NOAA is developing a new interface for accessing this data which will be available at ProjectDIVER.org. Project DIVER is currently a work in progress.

Documents

Author: Jessica Winter

Jessica Winter is an Environmental Scientist with the Office of Response and Restoration's Assessment and Restoration Division. Based in Seattle, she works on hazardous waste sites and oil spills in the Pacific Northwest and in the Great Lakes region.

3 thoughts on “Déjà vu on the Sheboygan River: Transitioning from Cleanup to Restoration in Wisconsin

  1. A thorough and clear presentation of what you and NOAA are doing to protect us. This is a great use of our tax money and I appreciate the work you and others do to identify and remediate the damages that have been done to our environment over the years. Thanks!

  2. Thank you for an understandable and clear presentation of how the Sheboygan River is being cleaned up. No doubt other rivers in the northeastern Wisconsin area are also dealing with similar issues. For example the Manitowoc River. PCB’s have no doubl contributed to cases of stomach cancer in those whose diets have included fish caught from in river. Hopefully the industries at fault are taking part in the funding process. One can only hope.

  3. Good question– I don’t know details of the Manitowoc River, but in the case of Sheboygan, the companies responsible for the contamination have funded parts of the cleanup overseen by EPA’s Superfund division. Additional cleanup was funded under a cost-sharing agreement between the companies and state, local, and federal governments — more details available through EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office (http://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/sediment/legacy/sheboygan/index.html)
    The companies will need to pay the assessment and restoration costs as well, as provided for by federal law. (The relevant laws can be pretty complicated, but a general overview is at http://www.darrp.noaa.gov/about/laws.html)

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