FOX RIVER (WLUK) -- It has taken more than two decades of work at a cost of more than a billion dollars. The clean-up of PCB's in the Fox River is entering the home stretch.
Crews are expected to finish the massive dredging operation this year. The big question: has it had an impact yet?
"There were a lot of people, engineers included, who said it couldn't be done," said Gary Kincaid, a wastewater engineer with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
Today, the Fox River is known as a place for fishing, boating. It's the center of economic activity both on the shore and on the water.
But what's in the water, or more precisely, what used to be in the water, may be the river's greatest claim to fame.
"This is a huge deal. This is probably one of the most successful clean ups across the United States and Canada and probably one of the most successful in the world as well and people should know about it," said Dave Ullrich who spent 30 years with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Chicago office.
Ullrich helped oversee the initial stages of the clean-up of Polychlorinated Biphenyls, or PCBs. The toxic compound was discharged into the river beginning in the 1950s from the manufacturing and recycling of carbonless paper.
"The primary concern was contamination of the fish and what that would do to the ability of the fish to reproduce and to grow and most seriously, the kind of health implications for humans that would catch those fish and then eat the fish," Ullrich said.
The clean-up project was broken down into five units, covering 39 miles of the river from Little Lake Butte de Morts to the Bay of Green Bay.
"Primarily it's a dredging remedy, removing all of the sediment that's above one part per million but there are caps in the old channel where it's very deep, very thick sediment, over-lined by relatively clean material that you can cap and be very assured that it's going to stay in place," Kincaid said.
According to data from the DNR, crews have dredged more than six million cubic yards of sediment from the river. That's enough to cover one football field more than a half mile high. Crews have also capped 975 acres. While the project is about 95% complete, a lot of work remains.
Click here for more details about the project
"From the De Pere dam to the mouth, I say is the 800-pound gorilla. That's where most of the contamination existed," Kincaid said.
Kincaid says that's because as the water flows into the bay, more sediment collects in the river. The DNR says there are low levels of PCBs in the bay but Kincaid says it is not feasible to dredge them since the PCBs are so spread out.
"So, it's very low level. It's huge volume, it'd be huge cost for virtually no benefit," Kincaid said.
As crews continue to dredge near the mouth of the river, the DNR is collecting data further upstream to assess the project's impact.
"We have four monitoring events so far from Little Lake Butte de Morts up to the De Pere dam. So that data says we are getting good reductions in fish, water and sediment concentration so very positive results," Kincaid said.
According to preliminary data from the DNR, PCB levels in walleye were down 68% in Little Lake Butte des Morts. Further downstream, tissue samples showed PCB levels down 28-79%. Kincaid says the data is far from complete, but it is a good start.
"It takes a number of years of monitoring to establish a trend and to be certain about things but so far the data looks very good and we're getting very good reductions. So yeah, we think it's successful. As you get further downstream, we'll see," Kincaid said.
"That's a big story even before the dredging is done already showing the signs. So that's a massive success story," said Raj Bejankiwar from the International Joint Commission, a watchdog agency that monitors the entire Great Lakes system.
"The Fox River is one of the biggest source of PCBs to the Great Lakes system so now we're shutting the tap literally. No more PCBs are going to come after this clean up. That's a massive success story," said Bejankiwar.
It's a story Kincaid says almost wasn't written.
"What's unique about this place is there were a lot of nay sayers early on who said you can't do that. It's not going to work. You're going to dredge it all up. You're going to stir it and make it worse," Kincaid said.
He says demonstration projects showed the concept could work. One of those projects took place in 1999 near Fort James in Green Bay. The company is now part of Georgia-Pacific.
"As a company, Georgia-Pacific is really happy that the clean-up is coming to a close," said Mike Kawleski, public affairs manager for the company.
"From all indications, it looks like they have been successful in cleaning up the PCBs in the river either by dredging or capping. -- Our responsibility is to help maintain the caps once they're in place so we'll have some future responsibility there," Kawleski said.
Georgia-Pacific is one of several companies responsible for the clean-up. The largest share of the cost goes to NCR. The company is responsible for nearly half of the $1.3 billion dollar clean up. Through a spokesman, NCR declined our request for the interview for this piece.
Ullrich says the important thing is that the clean-up is getting done.
"Hats off to the companies that paid the money. They should have and they should have done it sooner but they did it," Ullrich said.
"Good things happen when there's the political will and people work together," said Charlie Frisk from the Clean Water Action Council. The environmental group spent years pushing for the clean-up.
When asked if he thought this day would ever come, Frisk said, "Oh, I always thought we would but there was a time where it just kept getting pushed back and back and back and there was some pessimism."
Now, it's almost complete. So is the career of Gary Kincaid.
"It's been the major part of my career. I'd like to see the remedies complete," he said.
Kincaid plans to stay on until the project wraps up later this year. The long-term monitoring will continue for some time.
"It was just neat to be part of something that really is making a difference and it is making a difference," Kincaid said.
Ullrich, who is still active in water quality issues, says just as the clean-up has had a profound impact on the river, it has also had a profound impact on his life.
"If I died tomorrow, which I hope not to do, I would die a happy man because the Fox River is as close to the end point and success as it is, Ullrich said.