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Additional Case Studies
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A Civil Action: fighting got enviormental justice in Woburn
Nashua River
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?

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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

April, 1999

Basel, Switzerland

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).

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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.

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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 homepage

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. 300

Cunningham Principles 2/eOnline Learning Center

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