The Fox River: home to river bugs, provider of food and drinking water to communities along the river and an all-around excellent place to go enjoy a nice existential scream in the peaceful seclusion of nature (if you’re so inclined). We see it every day and sometimes even make a point of spending time with it up close, but how many of us are familiar with the river’s colorful history?
Lawrence perches above the Lower Fox River, which stretches for 39 miles, originating at Lake Winnebago and discharging into Green Bay. Paper manufacturing is a major industry along the banks of the river; in fact, Appleton was the first community in the Fox Valley to begin manufacturing paper, though Kaukauna is known for its old Thilmany Papers mill.
In the 1950s, paper mills in the Lower Fox River Valley began using polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)to manufacture carbonless copy paper. PCBs are “toxic and persistent chemicals primarily used as insulating fluids in heavy-duty electrical equipment in power plants, industries, and large buildings across the country” (EPA Press Release, 1979). These chemicals made their way into the river, where they contaminated sediment, drinking water and wildlife, posing a threat to the ecosystem — which includes humans.
PCBs are a “chemical family of more than 200 different compounds, which accumulate in the fatty tissue of animals, including fish, waterfowl, and humans,” causing cancer and other health issues, as then-Lawrence student Devin Burke ‘04 wrote in a 2001 article for The Lawrentian. Additionally, PCBs take many years to naturally break down once in the environment and cycle easily between soil, air and water, by which they can be carried long distances from where they were originally released into the environment. This has led to PCBs being found all over the world, including in the arctic (cdc.gov). For these reasons, their use was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on April 19, 1979.
Cleanup efforts began along the Lower Fox River in 2004. The project included removing 6.5 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated by PCBs, as well as cleaning 800,000 tons of sand to be returned to the river (Kaeding, 2020).
River ecosystems responded well to the cleanup: PCB levels plunged after the first phase of the cleanup on Lake Butte des Morts, a six-mile stretch of the river flowing from Lake Winnebago. PCB levels in walleye fish also dropped by over 70 percent within a few years (McCoy, 2019).
According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the cleanup restored approximately 10 billion gallons of river water in what is considered one of the largest and most expensive cleanups in the nation (Kaeding, 2020). It was completed in September 2020, a mere two years ago, and cost over 1 billion dollars.
Tehassi Hill, chairperson of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, remarked that “Completing the PCB cleanup moves us one step closer in fulfilling our given responsibility by the Creator, to care for our waters.” He continued, “Soon, we will be able to catch and eat clean, safe fish from the Lower Fox River and the waters within the Oneida Reservation” (Kaeding, 2020).
Though we Lawrentians don’t get our food or drinking water from the river, it still occupies a massive space in all of our lives and is part of what makes the Lawrence campus such a special place. If you’ve ever gone for a stroll down the riverwalk behind Sage and Trever Halls and gotten to experience the river’s serenity up close, you can thank former Lawrence students for making that experience possible.
In 2006, Professor of Geosciences Andrew Knudsen taught an environmental studies course in which students explored the history of the Fox River, its pollution and its connections to Lawrence. The riverwalk was the course’s final project: students designed it, including recommending “what type of gravel to use for the path, the shape of the path and the content of the interpretive signs” (Anstine, 2010).
In the words of Professor of Anthropology Peter Neal Peregrine, the riverwalk project was a “way to get us tied to the river a little bit more;” he elaborated that the Lawrence community had previously tended to ignore the river’s existence (Anstine, 2010). The hope with this project was to bring people down to the river to commune with nature and appreciate the rich ecosystem the river sustains.
The riverwalk grants us intimate access to a beautiful space full of healthy plants and creatures, thanks to the 17-year-long effort to clean toxic PCBs out of the river. It’s a safe haven from the Lawrence Busy — a resource that can lower our anxiety, enhance our senses of wellbeing and remind us that we’re part of a world much bigger and way, way more wonderful than the stress that flits in and out of our lives. The Fox River has been through a lot within Lawrence’s comparatively short lifetime, and it’s to the benefit of every creature dwelling in its reach — including those mysterious cryptids that attend Lawrence — that the river has been cared for as it deserves and is recovering so well.