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

March 12, 1999

Air Date: March 12, 1999


Indigenous Groups Take on Big Oil / Quil Lawrence

Multinational oil companies have left big footprints across parts of South America, and Native American peoples have often felt the brunt. The three U.S. citizens recently slain in the region were helping indigenous groups in Colombia mobilize to stop a U.S. oil company from drilling on their lands. Quil Lawrence explores oil's impact in Ecuador, where local residents are increasingly savvy in their dealings with oil giants including Occidental Petroleum and Texaco. (08:40)

Bananas or the Environment: A Fair Trade?

Whatever the outcome of the banana war going on between the United States and Europe, there are serious concerns about the human and environmental impact of banana cultivation that are largely unaddressed. Steve Curwood talks with Living On Earth contributor Bob Carty, who spent many years in Central America reporting on the banana industry there. (04:40)

Bipartisan Backing to Combat Global Warming

Senators from both sides of the aisle are backing an effort to reward U.S. companies who take measures to cut their emissions of greenhouse gases. Environmentalists complain that the bill, the "Credit for Early Action Act," contains too many loopholes and doesn't do enough to stop global warming at its source in industrialized countries. Support from key industry and utility groups bolsters the bill's chances. James Jones reports from Washington. (04:00)

Junk Mail Begone

Steve Curwood talks about junk mail with Jim Calhoun, the Chief Executive Officer of Popular Demand, Incorporated. The company operates a website, "unlistme.com," that removes people from junk mailing lists and signs them up for a new type of commerce. (03:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

This week, facts about... the annual migration of Monarch butterflies -- millions of them. (01:30)

Hollywood Tells an Environmental Tale

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. (25:30)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript


HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Quil Lawrence, James Jones, Christopher Ballman
GUESTS: Bob Carty, Jim Calhoun

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

Kidnap and murder claim 3 American activists in Colombia. The tragedy highlights the struggle by indigenous tribes against oil companies drilling on their ancestral lands.

JOCHNICK: Not only do they recognize that the oil is leading to a lot of their health problems, they also recognize the fact that they have legal rights, and this is not the way that things are supposed to be. That they have, in fact, under their constitution, a right to a healthy environment.

CURWOOD: Also, as the banana trade war between the United States and Europe heats up, a reminder of the dangers of pesticide-laced banana plantations. Many workers have become sterile.

CARTY: I remember talking to one of the wives of one of these workers, and she was saying, you know, "I have no children. My home is empty. I feel like a tree that does not bear fruit."

CURWOOD: And one man's plan to help you get rid of junk mail. That and more on Living on Earth. First, news.

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(NPR News follows)

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Indigenous Groups Take on Big Oil

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Investigations continue into the deaths of 3 US human-rights activists killed after being abducted in Colombia. The 3 Americans had been helping local indigenous groups campaign to stop US-based Occidental Petroleum Corporation from drilling on tribal lands. Historically, oil companies have made their business arrangements with governments, sidestepping the concerns of local indigenous groups. Ecuador is a case in point. In the 1970s oil firms drilled throughout the Ecuadorean Amazon, barely consulting with the people living there. Years later, the Indians filed lawsuits. But today, leaders of indigenous groups are striking a harder bargain from the very beginning. Quil Lawrence reports.

(Tropical birds)

LAWRENCE: San Pablo de Los Secoyas is 2 hours boat ride downriver from the nearest dirt road. This is the Ecuadorean Amazon rainforest. Floating down the Agua Rico River will eventually feed into the Napo in Peru, and then east across the continent on the Amazon River. Three hundred fifty Secoya Indians live here in the tiny village of San Pablo. The income of the entire community is about $4,000 each year. But last month, the town returned a $20,000 payment to Occidental Petroleum company.

PIAGUAGE: [Speaks in native tongue]

LAWRENCE: Colon Piaguage, a member of the community, says that the deal which Occidental had made in order to build a road into the area and start drilling for oil was reconsidered by the Secoya. And they decided to give the money back, with interest.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: The life of our jungle doesn't compare with $20,000. Sure, $20,000 is a lot of money, but it's a philosophical idea. This is our culture, our identity. This is very serious for us.

LAWRENCE: This is the third deal which the Secoya have rejected with Occidental. Local environmentalists say the oil company has a good record within the industry. But what worries the Secoya is the close encounter with the outside world. Once the road is built, poor Ecuadoreans will colonize the newly-accessible jungle and mix with the Secoya as they never have in the past. It will also bring development, making it easier to trade with the rest of Ecuador. The Secoya have decided that they do want to make a deal with Occidental. They just want to make sure that they get plenty in return for what will be a drastic change in their way of life.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: It could be hard, no? Some 50 colonists could move in overnight and basically invade, since we are only 300 or so people. They could begin to mix with us, marrying Secoya, and that's how we could disappear.

WOMAN: [Speaks in native tongue]

LAWRENCE: Piaguage's grandmother remembers a time when game and fish were plentiful in this region Ecuadoreans call the Oriente. But those days were gone long before the negotiations began with Occidental. The Agua Rico River is already polluted, and fish stocks are low.

(Engines running; a horn beeps; in the background of traffic sounds)

LAWRENCE: This is Lago Agrio, also in the middle of the Oriente's jungle, and this is the kind of development the Secoya fear. After oil was discovered here in the late 60s, Texaco and the Ecuadorean government pumped about 1.4 billion barrels of crude over 20 years. And, according to environmentalists, they spilled about 17 million barrels, half again as much oil as was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster. Even though Texaco pulled out of Ecuador in 1990, the Secoya are among the plaintiffs in a huge lawsuit filed against Texaco on its home turf in New York. The Secoya say Texaco's pollution floated down the Agua Rico River, causing health problems for the Secoya as well as fish and game. The plaintiffs won a billion and a half dollars in compensation for the mess they say Texaco left them.

(Loud motors)

LAWRENCE: Next to a mammoth pump which is sending oil out through a pipeline, Manuel Silva is looking into a pit of oil sludge the size of a backyard swimming pool. Silva is a health worker in Lago Agrio, who heads a group of plaintiffs in the case against Texaco. He says that the unlined pools, with the help of heavy Amazon rain, leached toxins into the water, which everyone in the area drinks, washes, and bathes in.

SILVA: [Speaks in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: There have been a series of unknown diseases, chronic skin infections. There are respiratory diseases because people are breathing the contaminated dust of the roads.

LAWRENCE: A team, including researchers from Harvard University, conducted a study here in 1993, and concluded that the oil which had been spilled, as well as the open sludge pits, were releasing many toxins, the most dangerous being polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are linked to cancer even in trace amounts. Texaco also made roads by dumping crude oil onto dirt, which the research team says also leached toxins. The most serious allegation is that the company dumped what are known in the industry as formation waters, laced with heavy metals, which come up with the crude in any drilling operation. Environmentalists say that the only safe thing to do with the water is to reinject it deep into the earth. They say that Texaco simply dumped the water, about 30 billion gallons of it over 2 decades.

(Large flare)

LAWRENCE: When oil is drilled gas is also released. If it can't be sold, it is usually burned off in a flare like this one, which sometimes shoots flames over 20 feet high against the backdrop of green. Nearby is yet another one of the sludge pits.

SILVA: [Speaks in Spanish]

LAWRENCE: Silva says that when Texaco pulled out of Ecuador it made a deal with the government and sealed off only 70 of perhaps 600 pits. Texaco says its final agreement with the Ecuadorean government included the remediation of over 200 sites, part of a $40 million clean-up program, which they said accounted for all of Texaco's environmental damage. Faye Cox is a company representative.

COX: Texaco did operate responsibly in Ecuador. We provided, at the time of operations there, the consortium provided 50% of the gross national product to Ecuador. And that's important to an emerging country. And there were, you know, schools built, hospitals built, and we feel like we did a very good job in Ecuador. We were proud of the partnership with Petro-Ecuador, and we're proud of the way we operate around the world.

LAWRENCE: Cox says that the formation waters were filtered before they were released, and that the company was in accordance with prevailing industry standards at the time. She says that Texaco followed, and sometimes surpassed, all of Ecuador's standards and regulations, and that they worked in partnership with the Ecuadorean state. The case is tied up in New York courts, but it has already had an effect in the Oriente, according to Chris Jochnick, a Quito-based lawyer with the Center for Economic and Social Rights.

JOCHNICK: One of the good things about this lawsuit, however it turns out, one of the good things has been to force people to recognize the fact that oil has serious impacts on people's health in the environment. Just 5 years ago people really did live with oil as if it was just part of nature, almost. And today, not only do they recognize that the oil is leading to a lot of their health problems, they also recognize the fact that they have legal rights, and this is not the way that things are supposed to be. That they have, in fact, under their constitution, a right to a healthy environment.


LAWRENCE: Under his tin roof in San Pablo de Las Secoyas, Colon Piaguage is one of those who has learned a lot from the Texaco case. He says that the days when indigenous groups signed over their rights for a few trinkets are over. The Secoya have given the money back to Occidental so that they won't owe the company anything when the negotiations begin again.

PIAQUAHE: [Speaks in native tongue]

TRANSLATOR: First of all, we spent a very long time thinking about this. It wasn't easy to decide to let the company into our land. We wanted to avoid great damage that could happen, great damage to our cultural identity.

LAWRENCE: The Secoya say they will eventually allow Occidental to build a road into their territory to reach the oil. But with the threat it poses to their culture, they're going to try to make sure they get plenty in return. Piaguage mentions clean water, gasoline for the community motorboat, perhaps a hospital. He's optimistic that his people can benefit from the revenue from the oil wells around them—that they can use a chainsaw, a motor boat, and even a computer, and still preserve their language, their customs, and their culture. Older members of the community are wary of the changes to come. For Living on Earth, this is Quil Lawrence in San Pablo de Los Secoyas, Ecuador.

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Bananas or the Environment: A Fair Trade?

CURWOOD: The United States and Europe are locked in a trade war over...bananas. Regardless of the outcome of this dispute, there's a constant casualty in the production of bananas: the health of agricultural workers and their environment. On the vast corporate plantations of Central America, concerns about pesticide use and soil erosion go largely unaddressed. And though the small banana farms of the Caribbean have better environmental records, they still have problems. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty spent many years in Central America. He says in countries including Costa Rica, banana plantations resemble vast green deserts.

CARTY: That for me is really a very evocative image, green desert. I remember many times in Costa Rica, where I was living, traveling down the eastern slopes of the mountains. And as you come out of the clouds and the rainforest you just see banana plantations on the flat land, right out to the Atlantic Ocean. Tremendous, just a green lawn, where nothing grows except bananas, thanks to the pesticide use.

CURWOOD: What are the environmental impacts of this kind of agriculture?

CARTY: That kind of monoculture has a whole list of ecological impacts. The deforestation, which is ongoing as the plantations expand. There's loss of wildlife, of insects, of plants. There's the pesticide and fertilizer contamination, not only of the soil but also of the air and of their water, and even drinking water for the surrounding populations. And of course there's a huge volume of organic and plastic waste that's left over. Though I think the biggest concern I would have on these plantations would be the pesticide use. I remember watching aerial spraying. It's done about 50 times a year on a big plantation. And in Costa Rica, still to this day, it's done while workers are under the branches, servicing the plants. You'll also see workers walking around with backpacks of paraquat, which is a pesticide that's restricted quite highly in the United States in how it's used. But these men would be walking around without gloves, without masks, without boots, spraying paraquat, when they should be wearing maybe the equivalent of a space suit to do so.

CURWOOD: Well, Bob, is this current level of pesticide use really necessary? Can't you grow bananas without all those chemicals?

CARTY: Yeah. In my front yard in Costa Rica you couldn't stop them from growing. (Curwood laughs) They grow wild. At the corner market you used to be able to buy all kinds of wild bananas, not just the one marketable export kind, the Grand Cavendish, it's called. You know, the perfect long, thin, green banana. We would have baby ones, there were red ones, there were black ones. There were even, Steve, a banana that grows sort of square, a square banana. Tremendous variety. So you don't have to use pesticides. And certainly, a lot of the pesticides are just for cosmetic purposes, to make the banana look better. Those plastic bags that are put on at the end for ripening contain pesticides just to prevent a little black dot appearing in the skin. The dot does not affect the fruit, but it doesn't make the banana look perfect. And it must be perfect for consumers, the companies would have us believe.

CURWOOD: As consumers, should we be worried about these bananas. People say, "Hey, well I'm going to peel them, I won't get any pesticide." Is that a good conclusion to draw?

CARTY: Certainly the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration, and the companies themselves say that is the case. That residue is insignificant. There are others who point out that one has to be careful here because the science is not very deep. That is, very little imported fruit is tested to begin with, and only tested for certain chemicals. I think the greatest preoccupation, though, should be the people who have to apply these pesticides. They're the really—the workers in the banana plantations and their families are the ones who pay the price. And I suppose the classic example, Steve, is the DBCP, dibromo chloro propane example. This was a pesticide used in Costa Rica from about '65 to 1979. Although the manufacturers and the banana companies knew that it had potential risks of sterility for people who are exposed to it. Nothing was done about that. As a result, there are some 8,000 Costa Rican men who are sterile. There may be as many as 20,000 such cases around the world. It's quite a tragedy. I remember being in a clinic in San Jose with some of these men as they were being tested, their sperm count was being tested. The results were coming back almost total sterility. And I remember talking to one of the wives of one of these workers, and she was saying, you know, "I have no children. My home is empty. I feel like a tree that does not bear fruit."

CURWOOD: Well, Bob, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

CARTY: My pleasure, Steve. Good to talk to you.

CURWOOD: Bob Carty is a contributor to Living on Earth and a producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, who spent many years reporting from Central America.

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Bipartisan Backing to Combat Global Warming

CURWOOD: On Capitol Hill, lawmakers have rekindled an effort to combat global warming. The Credit for Early Action Act aims to reward US companies that voluntarily cut emissions of greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide. Last year a similar Congressional measure was filed too late for normal consideration, but the gesture did boost the US position during the climate change negotiations in Argentina. This time around the bill's chief sponsor, Rhode Island Republican John Chaffee, says he has hefty bipartisan backing. But as Jim Jones reports, many environmental groups aren't on board.

JONES: Senate backers of the bill cover a broad range. They include conservatives like Republican Connie Mack of Florida, who isn't convinced that human activity causes global warming, as well as lawmakers who have long warned of the dire consequences of climate change. Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference, Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, said the bill bridges a wide divide.

LIEBERMAN: This legislation, you might say, is not just bipartisan. It is aimed at being bilingual, which is to say, speaking in terms that we hope the combatants on both sides of the global-warming wars can understand and embrace.

JONES: This is how it would work. Companies that take measures to reduce greenhouse gases by improving efficiency, shifting to less polluting technologies, or even by planting trees, would rack up credits. Those credits could be used to offset requirements that might be mandated in years to come. The credits could also be traded or sold to other companies. The Environmental Defense Fund backs the plan. The group's executive director, Fred Krupp, calls the act the best hope for quick action on global warming, and says the measure can make its way through the Senate even though Senators don't appear ready to ratify the Kyoto treaty, an international effort to reduce global warming.

KRUPP: What this bill offers is a way that Senators who are for the ratification, as well as Senators who are, frankly, opposed to the ratification, can find a path forward. We see a need for legislation this year so we can begin to make reductions this year. The atmosphere can't afford the continuation of the status quo. Others may have a different sense of timing and strategy.

JONES: The others Fred Krupp is referring to are other environmental groups, who say the bill should only move forward with major alterations. John Passacantando is executive director of Ozone Action.

PASSACANTANDO: Environmentalists almost to a group oppose this bill as it's currently written, believe that it's counterproductive, believe that in name it sounds good; this wording, Company's Credit for Voluntary Early Action, but that in reality it's full of loopholes.

JONES: Many environmental activists say large utility companies had too strong a role in writing the bill. They complain that instead of creating incentives for domestic greenhouse gas reductions, the bill encourages companies to fund projects like tree planting abroad, where verification is difficult. The Sierra Club's Anne Mesnekopf says the bill should do more to stop emissions at their source in industrialized countries.

MESNEKOPF: We'd like to see a bill that requires domestic reductions. We'd like to see a bill that doesn't allow polluters to pollute more for planting trees. We'd like to see a bill that does not allow polluters to get credits for increasing their nuclear power output. And we'd like to see a bill that does not give credits for purely alleging that you reduced your pollution in the past.

JONES: The Credit for Early Action Act has quickly gained momentum in the Senate, although it has detractors there. Senators like Republican Frank Murkowski of Alaska, the chair of the Senate Energy Committee, complain that the measure essentially implements the unratified Kyoto treaty, putting the cart, the Senator says, before the horse. But this measure is less controversial and has more support in the business community than a similar effort last year, in part because it doesn't call for amending the Clean Air Act. The White House is encouraging credit for early action, although it hasn't come out in support of this bill or announced a plan of its own. For Living on Earth, I'm James Jones in Washington.

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Junk Mail Begone

CURWOOD: Each year, every US home receives, on average, 34 pounds of junk mail. That translates into 4.6 million tons of paper nationwide. And that's just the paper. Ink, water, and energy are also needed to generate the billions of catalogues, credit card offers, and the like. There are ways to reduce the stream. One of the latest is unlistme.com. It's the brainchild of Jim Calhoun, the Chief Executive Officer of Popular Demand, Incorporated. Jim Calhoun says advances in computer technology can give consumers more leverage, but technology has also caused the amount of junk mail to balloon.

CALHOUN: It sounds a little bit like a cliché, but in the last couple of years it's really become possible to monitor somebody's commercial history primarily through their credit card transactions and things like that, where companies will act as clearing houses for your credit card purchases, and then they sort of know what it is that you buy. Marketers get a hold of this data, turn it around, and try and infer what it is that you might be likely to buy.

CURWOOD: Okay, so this explains why last fall, when I went to a men's store and bought a bunch of shirts, I got all these catalogues from people who made shirts.

CALHOUN: Exactly.

CURWOOD: But tell me, Jim. Aren't catalogues an environmentally friendly way to shop? I mean, at least you don't have to get in the car and waste gas or trundle all the way across town and park.

CALHOUN: Absolutely. And you know, we're certainly not anti-catalogue. It's just a manner of making sure that the people who are getting them are actually getting value out of them. Really, just the way the math of marketing works, there's a lot of waste built into the system.

CURWOOD: Tell me about this math of marketing. Why is it we get just deluged like this? I mean, I can't respond to 10 credit card offers.

CALHOUN: The people who sent you those offers know that you're going to respond to just a fraction of the things that come in your mailbox. They know, for example, that statistically, 50% of the time you'll throw it out without even opening it up or looking at it. If you're a credit card company or whatever, you want to get a 2% response rate.

CURWOOD: So if I am a direct marketer, and I go out and I cut down 100 trees to send out the junk mail, 98 of those trees have died in vain.

CALHOUN: Exactly. So that's where you get this giant amount of waste that is a byproduct of just the fact that companies need to acquire customers and grow.

CURWOOD: So what's the solution here?

CALHOUN: Well, the primary service that we're offering for consumers right now is a free direct-mail suppression list service, so we go ahead and reduce your junk load as a consumer. The next step is where you can say: I'm not interested in hearing about stuff by junk mail, but I'm in the market for a new computer, gardening equipment, whatever it may be. What we do is go out and say okay, company X, we know 10,000 people are interested in these products. If you'd like to talk to them, you talk to them through us as a middleman, and then we, on a frequency that you control as a consumer, you can say you want to hear about deals once a month, once a week, never. And then we'll send out an e-mail that says there are 5 deals on your personal home page that match your interest. You can check them out. And that's it.

CURWOOD: Jim, one thing.


CURWOOD: People don't write a whole lot of letters any more. I mean, when I open the mailbox, there's junk mail and there are bills. If I sign up with you, all I'm going to get is bills.

CALHOUN: Bills and an occasional letter. I think it should be a good thing.

CURWOOD: Jim, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

CALHOUN: Thank you very much. I appreciate it, it's been fun.

CURWOOD: Jim Calhoun is head of the San Francisco-based Popular Demand. You can reach the group's Web site at www.unlistme.com.

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(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; Jennifer and Ted Stanley; the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the W. Alton Jones Foundation, supporting efforts to sustain human well-being through biological diversity; www.wajones.org; and Church and Dwight, a tradition of environmental responsibility: the makers of Arm and Hammer Baking Soda, the standard of purity.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio. CURWOOD: Just ahead: Delve beyond the movie version. We give you the real story behind A Civil Action. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

(Music up and under)


ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include Stonyfield Farm Yogurt, profits for the planet, supporting initiatives that protect the Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: In March, not all the madness is on the basketball court. This month millions of Monarch butterflies begin their annual migration. While many butterfly species migrate, only the Monarchs return to the same wintering site each year. Some like to roost on eucalyptus or cypress trees on the Southern California coast, but most Monarchs slumber through winter in the mountains of central Mexico. Colonies there were smaller this year in part because logging reduced butterfly habitat. Still, come spring, the regal butterflies head north and stop where they find milkweed. Then they lay their eggs and die. But in a week or so, their offspring continue the journey north before they, too, stop, lay eggs, and perish. And so on, and so on. It can take as many as 4 generations to complete the 5-month journey north. The Monarchs who winter in Mexico fly over Gulf Coast states and head north, arriving in eastern Canada in late summer. The California Monarchs follow the west coast up to British Columbia. Then, early in the fall, clouds of Monarchs head south, retracing the path of thousands of miles that their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents flew over only months before. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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Hollywood Tells an Environmental Tale

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.

Back to top

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CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our story on Woburn was edited by Peter Thomson, with thanks to Joyce Hackel and Sandy Tolan. The mix engineer was Eileen Bolinsky, and we had production help from Elsa Heidorn, Jody Kirschner, and Jim Frey. Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our production staff includes Jesse Wegman, George Homsy, Terry FitzPatrick, Liz Lempert, Daniel Grossman, Miriam Landman, and Stephanie Pindike, along with Roberta deAvila, Peter Shaw, Leah Brown, Bree Horowitz, and Barbara Cone. We had help this week from Alexandra Davidson, Aly Constine, and Chris Berdik. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer. Thanks for listening.

(Music up an under)

ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the Ford Foundation for reporting on environment and development issues; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation for reporting on western issues; the Pew Charitable Trusts for reporting on threats to the world's marine environment: www.pewtrusts.com.; the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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