Inside Region 3
Midwest Region


The Fox River: 50 Years After Silent Spring

Rachel Carson

Rachel Carson U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo

If Rachel Carson walked along the shores of Green Bay today, she would observe Forster’s terns flying overhead, notice egrets and herons foraging in near shore wetlands, and perhaps even witness northern pike migrating into coastal wetlands. The Green Bay shoreline is a far cry from the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean near Carson’s Maine cottage where she found the inspiration for her best-selling book, “The Sea Around Us.” But, an inspiring shoreline it is, nonetheless. Thanks to clean-up and restoration efforts in recent decades, there are vast improvements in the Bay and the Lower Fox River.

The story of Green Bay and the Lower Fox River reads much like other major shipping ports situated on the shores of the Great Lakes. The abundant natural resources were depleted quickly, factories and industries sprang up along major waterways, agriculture and industry dumped massive amounts of soil and contaminants into the waterways, and coastal wetlands were ditched and filled-in for development.

As early as the 1930s, local news stories reported Green Bay citizens outraged by the filth, stink and sewage in the Fox River and the Bay of Green Bay. Beaches were no longer swimmable and fish kills were common due to low oxygen levels in the water.

The Industrial Revolution and World War II brought about the use of hazardous chemicals by factories along the Fox River. Chemical wastes were typically untreated and released directly into the river. Chemical releases included PCBs (Polychlorinated biphenyl) used by paper mills from about 1954 to 1971 for the production of carbonless copy paper. Other paper mills de-inked and recycled the carbonless copy paper and continued to release PCBs until 1980.

The environmental movement of the 1960s, spurred by Rachel Carson’s landmark book, “Silent Spring,” elevated environmental concern for Green Bay’s toxic waterways to the forefront for a new generation. The movement spawned new laws such as the Clean Water Act and other state regulations that protected wetlands, and regulated industrial dischargers. Despite these positive changes, toxic legacy contaminants such as PCBs still remained throughout much of the Lower Fox River and the Bay system.

A federal law known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, passed in 1980, helped address legacy contaminants such as PCBs at sites across the country, including Green Bay. The law authorized the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, to replace, restore or acquire habitat for fish and wildlife injured by legacy contaminants such as PCBs. The NRDA process began in the late 1990s at the Lower Fox River/Green Bay site.

The first steps in the NRDA process involved scientists assessing the damages to fish, waterfowl, migratory birds and other wildlife as a result of the PCB releases. Reports documenting these injuries were published along with a restoration plan describing what needed to be done to make the environment “whole” again.

Through the NRDA legal process, settlement funds have been provided by companies that were potentially responsible for releasing PCBs. The funds have been used for restoration projects that benefit fish and wildlife injured by PCBs. Projects aim to restore or reclaim the injured natural resources, or, if that is not possible, replace or acquire natural resources equivalent to those that were lost or harmed.

To date, over $36 million in settlement funds have been used for projects throughout northeast Wisconsin. These include: public land acquisitions, wetland and stream restorations, fish stocking and rearing, and public recreation facility construction. Another $22 million in matching funds have been contributed to these projects by other grant programs.

Rachel Carson would be pleased with the progress the Lower Fox River/Green Bay environment has made in recent decades. We have her to thank for the movement that led to the environmental regulations that resulted in these improvements. In a few more generations, perhaps, fish consumption advisories will be lifted, and anglers should be able to eat the fish they catch. The city of Green Bay is in the early planning stages to, once again, have a swimmable beach. Water quality has improved greatly. A diverse and balanced fishery is rebuilding in the waters of Green Bay and the Lower Fox River.

While dredging to remove PCBs in the Lower Fox River is expected to wrap-up in 2017, restoration for fish and wildlife species will continue long after the cleanup has been completed.

Betsy M. Galbraith
Green Bay Field Office




Last updated: October 1, 2012