A Civil Action: fighting got enviormental justice in Woburn
International Accord to Clean up the Rhine River
A Civil Action
Woburn, Massachusetts is a small, industrial city on the outskirts of Boston.
Throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Woburn was a major leather
manufacturing center with as many as 20 tanneries in operation at one time.
Between 1853 and 1929, the Woburn Chemical Works was one of the largest industrial
complexes in America. Centuries of careless toxic waste disposal badly contaminated
the soil and groundwater under much of the city, and for many years residents
complained that their well water tasted and looked terrible. In 1958, when the
city drilled two new wells (designated G and H) to serve the growing population,
the city engineer warned that the water was contaminated but the wells were
used anyway for domestic consumption.
In 1971, young Jimmy Anderson, who lived in the part of Woburn served by
these wells was diagnosed with leukemia. In talking with neighbors, Jimmy's
mother, Anne, discovered that 11 other children within a few blocks of her house
also had cancer. Depending on how you calculate the sample size, this was between
2.5 and 12 times the expected rate of childhood cancers. Was this merely a statistical
anomaly or an ominous pattern? What might be causing these tragic illnesses?
Could it be something in the water?
Although their suspicions were initially dismissed as emotional and unscientific,
Woburn residents finally learned in 1979 that the water from wells G and H was
indeed contaminated with a variety of metals and organic solvents including
several suspected carcinogens. Coming just a year after a similar revelation
about chemical contamination and links to childhood diseases at Love Canal in
Niagara, NY, this discovery encouraged Anne Anderson and others to begin to
ask who was responsible for polluting their neighborhood. In 1982, just a year
after Jimmy died, Anne Anderson and seven other families whose children also
had cancer sued the W. R. Grace Company and Beatrice Foods for damages caused
by negligent disposal of toxic wastes on their properties near the wells. The
families were represented by attorney Jan Schlichtmann of the public-interest
law firm, Trial Lawyers for Public Justice of Boston.
Both Grace and Beatrice immediately filed motions for dismissal, claiming
that even if they had dumped toxic wastes, the plaintiffs couldn't prove which
of the many pollution sources in Woburn was cause of a specific disease in a
particular person. These two corporations were chosen as targets out of all
the possible industries in Woburn, their lawyers argued, simply because of their
deep pockets. The judge ruled, however, that the case had sufficient merit to
proceed to a jury trial. After four years of interrogatories, deposition of
hundreds of witnesses, thousands of pages of documents, extensive examination
of medical histories and physical conditions of each of the plaintiff families,
and investigation of the industrial sites, the case finally went to trial in
1986. In the discovery process, the plaintiffs conducted their own on-site investigation
that revealed drums of toxic chemicals buried on the Grace property. Conviction
on charges that the company had lied to the EPA about when and where wastes
had been disposed didn't help the defense in the civil trial.
After a five-month trial and seven days of jury deliberation, the case
against Beatrice was dismissed, but the jury found that Grace had negligently
contaminated the Woburn wells. The jury could not decide, however, when contaminants
from the Grace property might have reached the wells. Was it before or after
the children developed cancer? This uncertainty led the judge to dismiss the
verdict and order a new trial. Rather than go through the process all over again,
both sides agreed to settle for $8 million. Grace also agreed to participate
in a $68 million cleanup of the wells, the most expensive Superfund project
in Massachusetts at the time.
Because the case was settled out of court, it doesn't create a legal precedent,
but it was one of the first times that plaintiffs succeeded in gaining compensation
in an environmental injury lawsuit. As a story of a few local families challenging
corporate giants, it gained national attention, and served as a warning to corporations
that they can be held liable for personal injuries from negligent disposal of
toxic wastes. A 1995 novel by Jonathan Harr about this case, titled A Civil
Action, was turned into a movie by the same name starring John Travolta and
Robert Duvall. Check out the novel or movie if you'd like to see more about
how the drama unfolded.
This case illustrates both changing attitudes in the United States towards
waste disposal and environmental liability as well as use of the courts to redress
personal environmental injuries. In this chapter, we'll examine both how environmental
policy is formed as well as how the legislative, legal, and administrative systems
work to accomplish policy goals.
Cleaning up the Nashua River
The Nashua River meanders for about 90 km (55 mi) through a heavily industrialized
region in central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire before joining the
Merrimack River near the town of Nashua, New Hampshire. For years the river
was so badly polluted by paper mill effluents, printing inks, municipal wastes,
and agricultural runoff that it was virtually an open sewer. It ran a different
color every day, depending on what was being dumped into it. Great globs of
toxic yellow-orange sludge often covered the surface. Foul smells drifted through
nearby communities and dead fish floated gently down the stream.
In 1962, Marion Stoddard moved to Groton, Massachusetts, not far from the
Nashua River. Disgusted by the water's condition, she decided to organize her
neighbors to begin cleaning it up. The first step was to identify who cared
about the river and how they might pool their efforts. A Nashua River Clean-up
Committee was formed (and later reorganized into the Nashua Watershed Management
Association to include land-use issues). Next, local, state, regional, and federal
agencies were contacted to find out about plans for the river and to identify
relevant statutes and regulations.
An important weapon in this campaign was provided by the Massachusetts
Clean Water Act, which provided for public hearings at which citizens could
comment on water-quality standards. With a little community organizing and publicity,
hundreds of citizens were mobilized to attend hearings and voice their demands
for clean water. A reclassification of the river resulted in new stringent standards
for pollution control and wastewater treatment. Local industries complained,
but most of the costs were paid by federal grants.
Another key to success was the ability to get widely different people to
work together. The general manage of one paper mill was persuaded to serve on
the Nashua Watershed Association board of directors together with zealous environmentalists
and conservative farmers. A broad-based coalition of private citizens, labor
unions, business leaders, and politicians was persuaded that having clean water
made good economic sense. In an unheard-of partnership, the Army, local communities,
and two state governments worked together to sponsor clean-up days in which
tons of trash and garbage were dragged from the river.
The end result was spectacularly successful. Six new wastewater treatment
plants were built. A 2,400 ha (6,000 acre) greenway lines the riverbank to protect
the watershed and provide for public recreation. The river now runs clean and
clear; people once again use it for swimming, fishing, and boating. Property
values have risen and new companies have been attracted by high environmental
quality and community spirit. The river that had been given up for dead is once
again alive and well. The EPA recognized Marion Stoddard and the Nashua Watershed
Management Association for their environmental leadership. It didn't take great
technical knowledge or wealth to do what they did; jut a concern for nature,
perseverance, savvy use of the media, some organizing skills, and a willingness
to work together for the common good. You could do the same.
International Accord to clean up the Rhine River
The Rhine River, which flows through some of Europe's biggest industrial
districts, has long suffered from severe pollution, including chemical
spills that have caused catastrophic fish kills. At times the water has
been so contaminated that long stretches the river were emptied of living
fish. In recent years several European governments have made special efforts
to clean up and protect the Rhine. On April 12 conservation efforts moved
forward with a new international convention (agreement) on the protection
of the Rhine. Five countries signed the convention: Switzerland, France,
Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands (see map).
The new agreement has impressive environmental protection goals. Included
among these goals are
- Habitat protection along the river's banks.
- Flood management, including aims to re-establish parts of the river's
natural course. By allowing the river more room to flood, severe floods,
such as those that took place in Germany and the Netherlands last fall,
could be avoided.
- Reintroduction of salmon, after an absence of almost 50 years, as
far upstream as Basle, Switzerland. Recent pollution prevention efforts,
as well as the installation of fish ladders to help the fish get around
dams, have already helped salmon return to lower stretches of the river.
The new convention also gives some environmental groups the right to observe
progress by signing countries. Giving these groups a voice is an important
step in ensuring that the words on paper will be translated into some sort
of actual progress. Also important in the effectiveness of the agreement
are extended powers of oversight and enforcement that will allow an international
commission to ensure that signatory countries live up to their promises.
For further information, see these related sites:
European Rivers Network
Description of the
Rhine River, from the World Meteorological Organization
To read more, see
Environmental Science, a Global Concern, Cunningham and Saigo, 5th ed.
Water pollution: p. 435-37
Types of water pollution: p. 437-443
Water pollution control: p. 451-455
Environmental Science, Enger and Smith, 6th ed.
Wastewater treatment: p. 302-304
Water use and pollution in industrialized and developing countries: p.