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

Hollywood Tells an Environmental Tale

Air Date: Week of

Hollywood hands out its Oscars later this month (on Sunday, March 21st) and a film with toxic contamination as its theme is among the contenders. "A Civil Action" could walk away with awards for Best Cinematography and Best Supporting Actor. Based on the best-selling book of the same name written by Jonathan Harr, it's the story of a lawyer who takes on two companies which contaminated drinking water, resulting in the deaths of residents in Woburn, Massachusetts twenty years ago. Living On Earth’s Christopher Ballman has the background on the events which took place in Woburn, and a look at why the movie matters.


CURWOOD: Hollywood hands out its Oscars on Sunday, March 21st, and a film with toxic contamination as its theme is among the contenders. A Civil Action could walk away with awards for best cinematography and best supporting actor. Based on the best-selling book by Jonathan Harr, A Civil Action tells the story of a Boston lawyer who sets out to prove that 2 corporations tainted drinking water and caused the deaths of children in Woburn, Massachusetts, in the late 1970s and early 80s. But the book and the movie only tell a part of the Woburn story, and with the Academy Awards just around the corner, we're taking the opportunity to re-release our version of events in Woburn, as reported by Living on Earth's Chris Ballman.

(A brass band plays)

BALLMAN: Woburn, Massachusetts, is a city with middle-class aspirations that clings proudly to its working-class past. Its school teams are called The Tanners, a nod to the leather industry that put this town on the map.

(Cheerleaders shout: "Eric! Feingard! Brian! Healy! That's their names and keep the Tanners in the game!)

BALLMAN: The first tannery opened in 1648. By the Civil War there were 20. The tanneries needed chemicals, and companies like Eaton, Stauffer, and Monsanto settled in along the Aberjona River to supply them.

(Trickling water)

BALLMAN: Given its history, some folks say Woburn is just the place you'd expect to find toxic contamination. And one day they did, in East Woburn, along the Aberjona, just upstream from the home of Ann Anderson.

(Water runs from the tap)

ANDERSON: I thought maybe there was some kind of a bacteria or something that was being introduced through the water supply.

BALLMAN: The water in Ann Anderson's home never looked, smelled, or tasted right. Not since the day her family moved here in 1965. Back then, Woburn was a growing Boston suburb with a growing demand for water. So city officials sank 2 wells, G and H, into the then-untapped Aberjona watershed. They'd been told the water was polluted but didn't pass the warning onto residents.

(More water runs, kitchen sounds and footfalls)

BALLMAN: When Ann Anderson asked city officials about the water, they assured her it was safe. Still, she felt uneasy.

ANDERSON: At that time, there really wasn't any bottled water. There really weren't any filters to speak of. And we really didn't know what to do, except complain, and that wasn't getting us anywhere.

BALLMAN: Then in 1972, Ann Anderson's youngest child, Jimmy, was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia. and soon she learned he wasn't alone.

(Traffic sounds)

ANDERSON: This is where the Zoners live. They lost their son, oh gosh, 1974, I think.

BALLMAN: Ann Anderson is taking me on a cancer drive. She's not raising money. She's pointing out the homes of neighbors where the disease left its calling card.

ANDERSON: This is where another family lives, and their son with leukemia is still living. They lost another son with another cancer.

BALLMAN: Ann Anderson kept running into East Woburn families with leukemic children at the hospital, at the library, at church. Something wasn't right. There were too many kids in too small an area with the same rare disease.

ANDERSON: The Gomashes live there.

BALLMAN: In Ann Anderson's mind there were only 2 things the children in her neighborhood shared: the air and the water. And everyone knew the water was bad.

ANDERSON: This is where the Chomees live.

BALLMAN: She tried to convince her husband, her doctor, and town officials something was wrong, but no one listened.

ANDERSON: The city engineer who used to pooh-pooh this issue, he subsequently died of leukemia. So you have to wonder what was going through his mind.

BALLMAN: Then she took a map of Woburn. With blue push pins Ann Anderson marked the homes of children who had died from leukemia, red pins for those living with the disease. Twenty-eight pins in all, 12 in her neighborhood alone.

ANDERSON: And the Cains live on this street. And this is where the Arfaros live, on this street. So there you have it.

BALLMAN: What the city of Woburn had was a cancer cluster. And for Ann Anderson it suddenly all made sense when test on wells G and H revealed high concentrations of tri-chloroethylene and perchloroethylene, 2 chemicals suspected of causing cancer.

ANDERSON: All that happened in '79. Jimmy died in 1981. The following year we filed the suit.

(Morning Edition theme music)

EDWARDS: This is Morning Edition. I'm Bob Edwards. In Boston today, opening arguments begin in the trial of 2 major corporations accused of water contamination, that might have led to the deaths of 5 children...

BALLMAN: In March of 1986, after 4 years of preparation, the nation watches as a trial begins in Federal Court in Boston. For the first time, private citizens are seeking damages against corporations for polluting water and causing illness and death. Their attorney is Jan Schlickman, a cocky but inexperienced personal-injury lawyer.

SCHLICKMAN: The mistakes that I made in that case could fill a book, you know, and did.

BALLMAN: The book is A Civil Action, the bestselling story of Jan Schlickman's 8-year ordeal and the inspiration for the Hollywood film. Author Jonathan Harr says chronicling Jan Schlickman's unfolding drama was like watching a man dive into a black hole..

HARR: He thought this case would make him rich. He thought it would make him famous. And he thought he would be doing good not only for the Woburn families, but he would be setting precedent as far as the way corporations treat the environment. And it didn't quite work out that way.

BALLMAN: The Woburn families were pitted against W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods, 2 of the nation's biggest corporations. It was a David versus Goliath challenge, and Jan Schlickman became obsessed by it. He spent millions on expert witnesses and plunged his law firm deep into debt in an all-out quest for a verdict that would rock the walls of corporate America.

SCHLICKMAN: You know, there was so much at stake for all of us, that it had to be us against them. You know. And only one side could win, and only one side could lose. And it was hard to think of any other scenario.

BALLMAN: But Jan Schlickman's co-counsel, Harvard Law School professor Charles Nessen. says the deck was stacked against them early on, when the attorney for Beatrice Foods persuaded the judge to split the trial into 2 parts. Charles Nessen says it was a decisive maneuver.

NESSEN: We had to prove first that the water was polluted by Beatrice and Grace. Then we had to prove that it actually caused the leukemia. And his strategy was to cross-examine the witnesses at such length and so boringly that the whole thing just strung out. So after dragging the first one out, he's able basically to say to the jury, "Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if you find for the plaintiffs on these issues, you'll be back here next week for stage 2. Whereas if you find for us, you can go home to your wives and children, your husbands and lovers." That was a very good strategy, very good.

BALLMAN: For his part, defense attorney Jerome Thatcher says strategy was only part of the courtroom saga. He says the plaintiffs' case just didn't stand up.

THATCHER: When you opt for the jury, you take with it the requirements that you must prove your case. And you must show causation. And in this case, the evidence was not there.

BALLMAN: After 5 months of testimony and arguments, the jury returns a split verdict. It absolves Beatrice Foods of the dumping charges, but says W.R. Grace did contaminate the groundwater. The second part of the trial against Grace is set, the one in which the families would finally get to tell their stories, and in which their lawyers would try to link the dumping with the diseases. But it never happens. Facing a crushing legal debt, and with a difficult case yet to prove, Jan Schlickman settles with Grace, and the families accept the terms. After legal fees and expenses, they receive about $450,000 each for the loss of their children. The verdict against W.R. Grace is dismissed. Both sides declare victory, but the companies seem like the only winners. Attorney Charles Nessen.

NESSEN: The thing that just really fried me was that the families, they never even got in the courtroom. We went through that whole thing, and those families never got into court. And it's their story.

ANDERSON: The end was really so frustrating and unfair. There was no sense of victory or any positive feelings about it, really, at all. Kind of makes you angry that the system doesn't work the way it should.

BALLMAN: The long ordeal left Ann Anderson and the other Woburn parents feeling drained and defeated. But the story doesn't end with the judge's gavel.

HARR: Woburn was not a failure.

BALLMAN: A Civil Action author Jonathan Harr.

HARR: This wasn't the case that rang the bell in the corporate boardrooms of America. But that doesn't mean that a bell wasn't rung. And there's a consciousness now that has slowly gained momentum, that, you know, without clean water and clean air, we don't have a society at all.

BALLMAN: What the Woburn families couldn't prove in the courtroom, they helped establish elsewhere.

OSENOFF: You start out with a basic structure here (chalk on blackboard), these are 2 carbons connected with a double bond with hydrogens stuck off each end. This is a common hydrocarbon found in nature called ethylene.

BALLMAN: Dr. David Osenoff is an epidemiologist who chairs the Department of Environmental Health at Boston University. He says because of research done in Woburn, we know a lot more about how chemicals contaminate groundwater and make people sick.

OSENOFF: The contaminants involved, tri-chloroethylene and, to a slightly lesser extent, perchloroethylene, are 2 of the most prevalent contaminants in groundwater from hazardous waste sites in the United States. And what we think happens is that the body sees the chemical and it tries to detoxify it. In the course of doing that, it appears to produce new chemicals that are themselves carcinogenic, and it's those metabolites that we think are doing the mischief. And there may be several kinds of mischief involved, not just cancer. Birth defects and autoimmune diseases now are being implicated.

BALLMAN: Dr. Osenoff credits Woburn citizens with helping break new scientific ground, where even he had been reluctant to go.

OSENOFF: I have a very melancholy history of having dealt with Woburn.

BALLMAN: In the late 1970s a group from Woburn asked Dr. Osenoff to help them find out what was making the children sick. Dr. Osenoff was just starting his work on water contamination. He told the group he didn't have the scientific tools to help them.

OSENOFF: To give citizens in Woburn credit, they didn't stop at my office. They went on, they were persistent, and they finally found somebody who really became obsessed with cracking the scientific issue. They did get that study done, no thanks to me. So, one of the lessons I learned was when they come to you with a problem, you don't stop there, but you use it as an occasion to develop some new science.

BALLMAN: Dr. Osenoff says statistical methodology and water-distribution models developed for Woburn are still in use today. And the enormous amount of data that residents there collected about the cancer cluster helped force public officials to deal with the toxic-waste crisis, not just in Woburn but across the nation.

WOMAN: In a small school, servicing that area, there are 5 cases, leukemia.

MAN: Clearly, from a statistical point of view, dramatically unusual.

BALLMAN: In the early 1980s, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy invited Ann Anderson and other Woburn parents and activists to Washington, DC. They told their stories to lawmakers considering legislation to clean up the nation's worst toxic dumps. President Ronald Reagan's proposals to downsize government and a massive budget deficit loomed in the background. But the testimony of Woburn parents and panic-stricken residents of Love Canal, New York, put a human face on the need for a national cleanup. Superfund became law and was later funded with $9 billion. Senator Kennedy says the Woburn folks deserve a lot of the credit.

KENNEDY: Rather than just sort of burying their own grief, they took this on because they felt so strongly that the kind of really, in this case, arrogance of the bureaucracy in failing to respond to such an obvious health hazard was unconscionable. And they continued to work and work, and they made the extraordinary difference.

BALLMAN: Eventually, investigations into the extent of Woburn's toxic contamination led to the creation of 2 Federal Superfund sites there, and I've joined a group of citizens on a tour of one of them.

MAN: We'll stop a little ways up here, and you get a really good sense of what the whole project's all about.

BALLMAN: Today, new life is rising on the former home of tanneries and chemical operations.

(Large vehicles moving)

BALLMAN: Clean-up got underway here about 5 years ago. The plan is to cap the contaminated land with a thin synthetic fabric, then cover it with 16 inches of sand, and then topsoil and vegetation. Soon a regional transportation center, a big-name department store, and an office park will arrive. The area once considered the fifth most polluted place in the nation will now bring jobs and tax revenue to town.

MAN: You're actually transforming this whole place. You won't recognize it in 24 months.

BALLMAN: This project is touted as a model success story of how to make contaminated land productive again. But later in the day I get another tour of the same area, from a woman with a different story to tell.

LITOWSKI: Golly, it's been a while since I've done this.

BALLMAN: Gretchen Litowski is a former director of the citizen's group whose work helped spur the investigation of this site. She says she's proud of the progress that's been made, but she's also frustrated by what she calls compromises in the clean-up. Officials said it would be too expensive and too difficult to remove the tons of poisons dumped here over the decades, or to treat them on-site. So, since this site is zoned commercial use only, they decided to cap the waste and keep a close watch on groundwater contamination. Gretchen Litowski says the waste isn't staying put.


LITOWSKI: What bothers me is, after 19 years of effort in this area, we have a $71 million cap on the industriplex site. And that's all we have. We don't have any groundwater treatment system. Nothing has been done about the benzene and toluene plumes which are migrating down the watershed. And we have all of the waste in place. So are we any farther forward than we were?

BALLMAN: One answer to that question lies along a stream just a few yards beyond the treated Superfund area.

(Running stream water)

BALLMAN: On the surface, at least, it appears Woburn still has a ways to go.

LITOWSKI: This is Hall's Brook (splashes), flowing into the Hall's Brook holding area that goes into the Aberjona River down into the wells G and H area.

BALLMAN: Jeez. Frankly, it's pretty surprising that knowing the history of this story and everything that's been done and the consequences of it, and to come down here and -- well, you describe it.

LITOWSKI: Well, you see, there's a car battery and a drum. Looks like the engine of a car. Trash everywhere. You name it, it's right here. Makes you wonder why is this allowed to happen? And why are the property owners along the banks of this stream not cleaning it up?


BALLMAN: I follow Hall's Brook south to where it meets the Aberjona River. Then about a mile down into the marsh, where the contaminated wells once stood. This is Woburn's other Superfund site. More than 2,000 tons of contaminated soil have been hauled away from here. And in an operation that's slated to last 30 years, groundwater is being treated by 3 separate systems. The goal is to make the water in this aquifer safe to drink, but no one is talking about actually reopening the wells, ever.

(Running water; fade to traffic sounds)

BALLMAN: I watch the river flow under Salem Street and resurface just east of Pond Street. I'm back in the heart of the old cancer cluster, Ann Anderson's neighborhood. And I try to measure the change that's taken place here since the discovery of the tainted wells and the leukemia cases 25 years ago. The clean-up of Woburn's pollution is far from complete and far from perfect, but some things have changed.

ANDERSON: In those days, when I think back, it was so different inasmuch as there was no understanding, and no respect for anything like this environmentally. And agencies and people that were set up to protect us put obstacles in our way, did nothing but try to dispute what we were bringing to them, took adversarial roles. That can't be done any more, because now it's a credible issue.

BALLMAN: But Ann Anderson's vindication comes from more than just the emergence of new political realities. In 1996, science finally caught up with the law. Ten years after the trial, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health concluded that the families were right about their children's illnesses all along. Attorney Jan Schlickman.

SCHLICKMAN: After 18 years of struggle, the state government, for the first time in our history, declared that the families' fear was correct, was well- placed. That in fact the water was responsible for the high incidence of leukemia in the community. And because of that, because Ann and the families have taken steps to show the world the truth about these chemicals, and the conduct that kills, and that every community has no longer, and no regulator, no company, no longer has the excuse of ignorance. We now know. And we'll have only ourselves to blame if we don't take steps because of it.

BALLMAN: That recognition marked a hard-fought and important victory for the families, but it was also bittersweet. Years were lost in the madness of denial and guilt and the obsession to find out what killed the children. Friendships soured, and marriages, including Ann Anderson's, ended. Everyone's moved on with their lives, but Ms. Anderson says such a very public grief can last a very long time.

ANDERSON: I have always just tried to keep it, keep pushing it back, pushing it back, pushing it back. Because it's so very difficult to deal with. I'm afraid if I sit down and really dwell on everything for too long, that I'll never come back. So, I just still, after all these years, [voice breaks] try to get through it.

BALLMAN: Some people are surprised to hear that Ann Anderson and most of the families affected by the leukemia cluster still live in Woburn. After the eerie experience of being a target of toxic contamination, they say there's really nowhere they could go to feel safe. That, perhaps, is the legacy of Woburn, and its message, that something in the water you drink every day can kill you, is frightening. So is the fact that Woburns can happen anywhere, any time. They're happening now, and sometimes the parallels are uncanny.

(Several voices speak at once, arguing)

BALLMAN: There's a cancer cluster today in the New Jersey shore town of Tom's River. More than 100 children are either dead or ill from leukemia and other cancers. City wells are contaminated with some of the same chemicals found in Woburn. And 2 large corporations are the suspected polluters. Linda Gillock, who's spearheading the family's efforts here, says learning about Woburn was a revelation and an inspiration.

GILLOCK: They were the pioneers for what we are doing over here. Because they looked hard enough, and they had someone that was really pushing to get to the bottom of this. It shows us that it's the beginning of what is going to be a long road, but yes, you can get answers if you persevere and keep pushing.

BALLMAN: And if, perhaps, you have an attorney who's been there before.

NEWS REPORTER: Parents say it's taking officials too long to explain why the cancer rate is higher here than in other parts of the state and the country. So they've hired Jan Schlickman, an environmental lawyer, to represent them.

BALLMAN: Linda Gillock is smart, savvy, and she knew all about A Civil Action, Jan Schlickman, and the mistakes he made in Woburn. But she hired him anyway.

GILLOCK: I would rather have an attorney that has found out everything that can go wrong and learned from his mistakes, than have an attorney that everything seems to go right for, and goes in thinking that he knows it all, and has never really fallen into those pits.

BALLMAN: Linda Gillock hopes an older and wiser Jan Schlickman will help the Tom's River families avoid the wrenching legal traumas of Woburn. But if you strip away the lawyers, the scientists, and the environmental activists, there's a stronger thread running between Tom's River and Woburn. They're both stories of parents, usually mothers, trying to protect their children. Ann Anderson and her son Jimmy in Woburn. And in Tom's River, Linda Gillock is working against the clock for her son, Michael. Cancer is taking its toll on Michael. Tumors distort his face. Medication has left his body bloated and stunted. Michael is 19 years old but barely 4 feet tall.

MICHAEL: I can't say I'm 6 foot tall, blond and blue-eyed? (Laughter in the background)

BALLMAN: Well, Michael does have blue eyes. And, in-between chemotherapy, his hair is dirty blond. He's also determined. He recently graduated high school and wants to be a doctor or a counselor. Meantime, he helps his mom's group search for reasons why children in his home town are getting sick.

MICHAEL: Being diagnosed at 3 and a half months with neuroblastoma, and then finding out it could possibly be linked to the water or something environmental, it sort of makes you think, well, I really would like to know what caused this and put a stop to it.

BALLMAN: No one knows whether the chemicals found in Tom's River's water can cause neuroblastoma, in part because it's such a rare disease. But there are at least 20 cases here, along with leukemia and other cancers. If folks in Tom's River ever find out what's happening to their children, it will be due in part to the new environmental science, laws, and awareness sparked by what happened in Woburn. And they will owe a debt to the people who sacrificed to make those advances possible, to activists like Gretchen Litowski, who proved the experts wrong and established the link between polluted water and cancer, to attorney Jan Schlickman, who risked everything to find some measure of justice for his clients, and to parents like Ann Anderson and children like her son Jimmy, a little boy who suffered through leukemia and all the unwanted attention it brought, and who may have understood, better than most, what was at stake.

(Outdoors, bird singing in the background)

MAN: There was some scene where some television reporter was trying to get Jimmy to do something, and he said, to you, you know, "Mommy, why do I have to do these interviews? You know, can I just stop?" And you try to explain to him that, "Well, Jimmy, maybe people will learn something from this."

ANDERSON: Well, for the most part, he wasn't feeling well, and when people try to focus on him, it wasn't always easy. But he came to the realization, also, that a lot of things were happening because of him, and he voiced that. He said, "This is all because of me, isn't it, mom?" And I said, "Yeah, it is." And I guess that's his legacy. He made a difference when he was here.

BALLMAN: For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman.



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