No doubt you’re annoyed by the calendar-quality images of nature being used to pedal everything from SUVs to shampoo to batteries. Now a coalition of paper companies in the Fox River Valley, near Green Bay, Wis., has taken this advertising tactic to a new low, bringing a little dark comedy to a community engaged in a decades-long dispute over cleaning up the heavily polluted waters of the Lower Fox River.

Under the banner of the Fox River Group, seven paper companies likely to be held liable for the river pollution have been running television ads that feature a mallard duck. On a treadmill.

Over soft quacking, a narrator intones: “No matter how much talk’s gone around about what should be done about Fox River PCBs, we don’t seem to be getting anywhere. The Fox River Group of paper companies thinks it’s time to start making real progress.” The ad concludes by touting an ongoing review of technical studies. (How yet another technical review will lead to “real progress” in cleaning up the river is left to the discerning viewer to figure out.)

In a second ad, the duck is shown trying to enter a series of open doors, only to have them closed on his beak. “We’ve offered to fund projects, including capping and habitat restoration, to start right now,” the ad says, complaining that the proposals have been rebuffed by state and federal officials.

That hooting noise you hear from the Midwest is the sound of general incredulity that the Fox River Group would choose a duck to convey its message. The Lower Fox River is one of the few places in the nation with a waterfowl consumption advisory in effect, as the local mallards are loaded with PCBs, courtesy of the paper companies.

“They spend that much money on PR and that’s all they could come up with?” asks Bruce Baker, who oversees the Fox River problem for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR). “I thought it was a joke. It would be a good Saturday Night Live skit.”

Pulp Fact

The Fox River Valley is the most intensive pulp-and-paper manufacturing center in the world. The first paper mill on the Fox was built in 1853. After Paul Bunyan clear-cut the North Woods, the industry thrived on the scrubby second-growth forests that soon filled the barren landscape.

Before long, decaying pulp waste was gobbling up oxygen and suffocating fish. Pockets of raw sewage would boil up from the river bottom during the 1930s. In 1943, Bay Beach in Green Bay was shut down, the first beach closing on the Great Lakes; it remains closed today. At one point the locals even sprayed perfume on the river in an effort to combat the stench.

The tale turns from putrid to toxic over office supplies. To make carbonless copy paper, tiny drops of ink were encased in PCBs — pressure from a pen released the ink from its toxic shell. The inky PCBs were applied to huge rolls of paper, which were then cut down to size. Scraps were recycled into new paper in mills up and down the river. In a cruel irony, it was this recycling that released the PCBs. By conservative estimates, some 220,000 pounds of PCBs entered the river, but the actual figure could be two or three times that. The Fox River is the largest single source of PCBs flowing into the Great Lakes.

In the Fox Valley, PCBs have been linked to increased rates of spinal deformities in leopard frogs, twisted bills in cormorants, and impaired reproduction in the Forster’s tern. A 1996 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that the children of mothers who ate PCB-contaminated fish were twice as likely to fall behind in reading at school.

(Of course, one perverse benefit is that these kids are less likely to read the political texts of Wisconsin’s Republican governor, Tommy Thompson. His 1996 book Power to the People touts the Fox as a trophy walleye fishery that is “safe for both people and fish.” The river remains closed to swimming, and any angler smart enough to catch a trophy walleye is smart enough to throw it back.)

Cleanup has been promised since 1985. A 1988 remedial action plan was rapped for its lack of quantification and accountability. A revised 1993 plan subsequently reported progress in only two of 10 areas. The EPA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have since gotten involved as the cleanup has languished under foot-dragging by the “potentially responsible parties” and the politically hamstrung DNR. Two demonstration cleanup projects should have been done by 1998, but just one has been completed. The Fort James Corporation only recently announced it would provide funding to finish the second job.

A DNR spokesperson says that cleanup is now truly imminent, but meanwhile more PCBs slip down the river every year. A major flood could irretrievably flush huge quantities of PCBs into the Great Lakes.

The Ugly Duckling

Everything is in dispute here: money, liability, science, engineering, jurisdiction, and, now, the duck.

“No ducks were injured in the making of these commercials,” laughs Diane De Deker, vice president and creative director for FH&K, a marketing communications firm in nearby Neenah, Wis., which made the commercials. In fact, the ducks aren’t even local — the firm hired a Chicago wrangler who drove up with three urban and, so far as De Deker knows, nameless ducks. (So much for a Free Willy-style campaign.)

“It was just jump-off duck and walking duck,” she says, referring to their particular talents. “They started off a little testy,” she says, laughing again. “The script didn’t make a lot of sense to them.”

She says criticism of the ads has gotten a little carried away. Regarding the choice to use a duck, De Deker says that according to her research, people are drawn to the duck as a symbol of the river. “We decided the duck is important and we want to continue with the duck.” And she doesn’t put much stock in the health advisories against eating local waterfowl. “Do you know how they set those? They take the entire animal and they grind it up. It’s not based on what is actually consumed from a bird. The majority of hunters who eat waterfowl don’t consume skin, where the toxins accumulate,” she says. “That’s a personal opinion, based on the fact that I’m a hunter and I do eat waterfowl from the area.”

De Deker hopes another duck spot will air soon, but she’ll reveal no details.

The local Sierra Club, which has been pressuring the Fox River Group to halt the ads, recently broadcast its own humorless — if you don’t count the bad puns — 60-second radio spot entitled “The Duck Stops Here.”

At a recent Fox River Revival, enviros vowed to “Take Back the Duck.” They had more than 100 ducks in attendance — stuffed ducks, rubber ducks, big wooden ducks, decoy ducks, a duck toss, pin-the-bill-on-the-duck — even a six-foot-tall man in a duck suit.

Despite the improbable sighting of a full-dress duck devouring a bratwurst, the Sierra Club’s Emily Green was not amused by the whole situation. “Not until I see the court order, as far as I’m concerned. You can debate a model until it’s dead, until all the crap in the river has washed out into Lake Michigan. We’ve spent $30 million studying the river and it’s time to move forward.”