Turning a chronicle of the Fox River clean-up into a story


Dredging of toxic sediment in the Fox River during the almost 20-year clean up. Image: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

By Jake Christie

Large paper corporations along the Fox River in Wisconsin dumped tons of polychlorinated biphenyls into the river in the 1950s, contaminating fish and making the water unsafe for people.

Fifty years later the chemicals were still there.

Paper Valley is the story of getting them out.

The completion of the Fox River clean up was certified in 2022 by the Environmental Protection Agency. The agency oversaw the removal of 6 million cubic yards of contaminated sediments, a billion dollar operation paid for by the companies responsible for the pollution.

The book will be available in stores and online April 11, for $26.99. Paper Valley is available for pre-order through Wayne State University Press, Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Overdrive, Bookshop and Thriftbooks.

While working and reporting on the case, neither author intended to write a book about their roles in the clean-up. David Allen was then the assessment manager for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that built a billion dollar case against the river’s polluters, Susan Campbell was then a newspaper journalist who fought to keep the story in the public’s attention.

When their work was done, they both moved on with their lives, holding on to their notes about the Fox River just in case.

When Allen received a call from one of his old partners in 2016, he was surprised to learn how little people remembered what his team had gone through to get the river cleaned up.

He decided to write a book, working from old notes, conversations and memories. He eventually put together a rather dry manuscript, Allen said. So he asked Campbell for help turning it into a story.

Campbell had her own pile of reporter’s notes, but she wasn’t eager to dive back into the past, she said.

Allen had kept around 2,200 pages of detailed handwritten notes from his work on the cleanup.

“I expected this thing could end up in a damage assessment trial in federal court,” he said. “I expected to be in front of hostile defense attorneys, in front of a federal judge, trying to relay every detail of what actually happened,”

The two knew each other as a reporter and source when Allen was working to make his case against the paper companies. But they hadn’t spoken in around 16 years.

Revisiting the past was bittersweet. Despite living through the events, they were shocked at just how much difficulty Allen and his team faced in trying to get the river cleaned.

Campbell pushed Allen to emphasize the human factor in the clean up and effects of the pollution.

“What was missing was some of Dave’s old stories and the humanity of it, what he was experiencing as a person who was at the center of all this and making it happen,” Campbell said.

They developed a system to help bring those experiences to the forefront. Campbell would edit and ask questions about what Allen had written.

“He would write back these amazing stories of what it felt like that were so personal, and so real,” Campbell said, “It really brought the story to life.”

The rare success of the Fox-River clean up in Wisconsin is documented by authors David Allen and Susan Campbell who lived through the event.. Image: Wayne State University Press

Paper Valley started as a simple exercise in chronicling the past, but turned into something more, Allen said. Their goal turned into creating a story of citizens working to hold corporations accountable.

“There were facts and principles and legal issues that sort of bound what should happen, but there were very powerful people trying to ignore that. That seems very relevant to today,” he said.

Campbell wanted to highlight the role local newspapers play in bringing stories that might be missed by national organizations to their communities, she said.

While Allen and Campbell wrote Paper Valley together, the success of the Fox River clean up was the result of the hard work of many people, they said.

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