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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Woburn Toxics Redux

Air Date: Week of

Woburn, Massachusetts was made famous with the book and movie “A Civil Action.” W.R. Grace, the chemical company found guilty of contaminating the town’s drinking water, was the story’s number one bad guy. But, as it turns out, a computer model suggests the company may not be the main culprit. Allan Coukell reports.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood and coming up: two views on how to get from here to there as Congress takes up the latest transportation bill. But first: “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” baseball’s Yogi Berra once declared, and now his sublime wisdom can be applied to solving one of the nations most infamous pollution incidents.

The Woburn toxic waste case was the basis for the book and movie “A Civil Action.” The trial pitted eight families from Woburn against companies accused of dumping pollutants, that allegedly caused a cluster of leukemias and other cancers. This all took place back in the late nineteen-seventies and early eighties.

A jury found the chemical giant W.R. Grace guilty of contaminating the drinking water. But, as Allan Coukell from member station WBUR reports, a new computer model suggests that W.R. Grace was not the main culprit.


COUKELL: It was a case that attracted national attention, the basis for a best-selling book, and a movie starring John Travolta.

TRAVOLTA [MOVIE CLIP]: Lawsuits are war, it’s as simple as that…

COUKELL: In the early 1980s, the families of eight Woburn leukemia patients filed a lawsuit, alleging that local companies had dumped toxic waste, which then spread through the soil, contaminating the drinking water in two city wells known as Wells G and H.

Three companies were involved in the legal proceedings. One, an industrial dry cleaning operation owned by the Unifirst Corporation, agreed to a settlement before the case came to trial. A jury decided that a second company, the J.J. Riley Tannery in Woburn, owned by Beatrice Foods, was not guilty.

But the third company involved was found guilty of contaminating the wells, and the chemical giant W.R. Grace eventually paid 8 million dollars to settle the suit. Now, a new study suggests that the jury may have reached the wrong verdict.

METHENY: Well, modeling is using equations – what we know about the way groundwater flows mathematically.

COUKELL: Maura Metheny is a geologist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. She constructed a computer model of how water and contaminants spread through the ground at Woburn.

METHENY: By estimating when the contaminants were put on the ground, we can simulate how long it would take from each of those sources to reach the pumping area in the wetland.

COUKELL: Metheny calculated how fast the chemicals in question, known as TCE and PCE, would move, and in what direction. Working with Professor Scott Bair, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences at Ohio State University, she created a kind of three-dimensional month-by-month map that shows the plumes of chemicals from various sources seeping through the ground.

The model takes into account rainfall, groundwater levels and other factors. And allowing for uncertainties, such as exactly when the dumping began, it predicts a range of possible scenarios to explain how the chemicals got into the drinking water.

And according to Professor Bair, most of the scenarios indicate that chemicals W.R. Grace and Unifirst played only a minor role in contaminating wells G and H before they were closed.

BAIR: In most of the plausible scenarios from our model, we see that the contamination from the Grace and Unifirst properties either doesn’t get to the wells before they were shut down in 1979. Or it gets there fairly late, around 1974-75, and it gets there in much lower amounts or concentrations than what was coming from the other contaminated properties and going to Well G.

COUKELL: Bair and Metheny recently presented their work at a meeting of the Geological Society of America. The results haven’t yet been published in full, so other researchers can’t yet evaluate them. But an Environmental Protection Agency scientist familiar with the work calls it “the most comprehensive modeling effort to date.”

Most of the scenarios produced by the new model indicate that the bulk of the contamination came from the Riley Tannery, owned by Beatrice Foods, and from another company, New England Plastics. Some also came from a company then called Hemingway Trucking.

All of those properties, as with the W.R. Grace and Unifirst properties, are known to be heavily contaminated, and are now part of the EPA cleanup.

SCHLICTMANN (in classroom): Yeah, they did something really unusual. You see they invited the companies to a place like this… (fades under)

COUKELL: Jan Schlictmann often speaks about the lessons of the Woburn case. He is the lawyer, played by John Travolta in the movie, who brought the original suit on behalf of the Woburn families.

SCHLICTMANN: There’s no question that if we had had the kind of sophisticated model that was used here, it absolutely would have been helpful in proving the case. No question about it.

COUKELL: Does it have legal implications today, do you think?

SCHLICTMANN: Not for our case. Our case is in history now. But the kind of model that was done here, the level of sophistication and how the analysis was done, will absolutely have application to many other cases out there – and, unfortunately, there are too many of these cases. There isn’t a community that doesn’t have one, or is under the threat of having one.


COUKELL: Wells G and H have long been closed; the trees are bare; garbage litters the site. Not long ago, Donna Robbins paid her first visit in years. She was one of the original plaintiffs in the Woburn case.

ROBBINS: One of the wells, Well G is right over there, and that’s where there used to be a brick house…

COUKELL: Today, she says it doesn’t matter to her which companies contaminated the wells. Five companies dumped waste on their properties and that, she says, is what matters.

ROBBINS: This is about people, it’s about kids. And I don’t want people to have to focus on W.R. Grace or Beatrice in this study. It is a different degree of chemicals they all dumped. Some got there much quicker, much more concentrated. But they all contaminated. And it still hurts to think that these companies did what they did, and that our sons are no longer here.

COUKELL: The Beatrice Foods Corporation, as it was constituted in the 1980s, no longer exists. New England Plastics, the Unifirst Corporation and a representative for the former Hemingway Trucking property did not return calls for this story. A spokesman for W.R. Grace acknowledged the new study, but said the company has moved on beyond that time. The EPA says its Superfund cleanup at Wells G and H will continue for decades to come, until the water is safe to drink. For Living on Earth, I’m Allan Coukell.



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