By TODD RICHMOND
Associated Press Writer
MADISON, Wis. (AP) — The U.S. Department of Justice and state prosecutors on Thursday sued a group of paper companies that haven’t reached long-term agreements to clean up pollution in the Fox River.
The lawsuit, filed in federal court in Green Bay, alleges the companies owe the state and U.S. government at least $16.5 million for past cleanup efforts. It also asks a judge to order them to cover future cleanup costs.
State and federal environmental officials have been struggling with contamination from paper factories along the Fox and the bay of Green Bay for decades.
According to the lawsuit, the paper makers discharged large amounts of polychlorinated biphenyls, better known as PCBs, from carbonless copy paper production into the waters. PCBs can cause health problems in fish and birds and can cause immune system problems, low birth weights and learning disabilities in humans, the lawsuit contends.
Environmental officials and the companies have been cleaning up the contamination through a series of short-term agreements, moving north along the river toward Green Bay.
However, the government hasn’t been able to reach long-term agreements with the entities named in the lawsuit. Government attorneys were concerned the statute of limitations for legally forcing those companies to undertake cleanup and cover reimbursements could expire before those deals are reached, Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen said.
“It’s important that before the time expires within which we can bring a lawsuit, we actually file a lawsuit so they don’t have the ability to walk away from those negotiations,” Van Hollen said.
The lawsuit names a number of former and current paper makers, including NCR Corporation; Appleton Papers, Inc.; CBC Coating, Inc.; Kimberly-Clark Corp.; Menasha Corp.; Newpage Wisconsin Systems, Inc.; P.H. Glatfelter Co.; U.S. Paper Mills Corp.; and WTM I Company as defendants.
The Justice Department also filed a proposed consent decree Thursday with an additional defendant, Georgia-Pacific Consumer Products LP. The deal calls for the company to pay $7 million to cover the costs of past and future cleanup and absolves them of any liability in the lawsuit.
Company spokesman Kelly Ferguson called the agreement fair.
“As we’ve said all along,” he said, “we’d rather invest our time and resources on the river rather than in the courtroom.”
The Wisconsin Paper Council, which advocates for the state’s paper industry, did not immediately respond to phone requests Thursday seeking comment.
Cameron Smith, a spokesman for NCR Corporation, issued a statement saying that NCR has been working to clean up the river and applauded the government’s efforts to force others to participate.
The lawsuit also alleges the city of Appleton and the Neenah-Menasha Sewerage Commission discharged PCB-contaminated wastewater into the river. Messages left for the Appleton city attorney and the commission’s attorney weren’t immediately returned.