Last update:
2018-11-15

Water contamination and environmental liabilities from chemical companies, Woburn (Mass), USA

A Superfund (CERCLA) case involving Grace and other chemical companies which polluted drinking water. Reported as the nation’s most expensive toxic cleanup, with cost well over USD 68 million.


Description:

Rapid development in the 1950s caused a chronic shortage of drinking water. As populations grew in the city during the 1960's, two new wells were drilled along a industrial area in order to develop additional community water supply. Almost immediately, residents began to complain about the water, suspecting that it was responsible for the occurrence of childhood leukemia and the increase in birth defects. Ten years after the development, an analysis determined those wells were contaminated with trichloroethylene (highly carcinogen) and shut the wells down.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Water contamination and environmental liabilities from chemical companies, Woburn (Mass), USA
Country:translation missing: en.countries.united_states_of_america
State or province:Massachusetts
Location of conflict:Woburn
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict: 1st level:Infrastructure and Built Environment
Type of conflict: 2nd level :Water access rights and entitlements
Chemical industries
Specific commodities:Water
Project Details and Actors
Project details:

The wells supplied 30 percent of the city's drinking water.

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Project area:160
Type of populationUrban
Start of the conflict:01/01/1964
Company names or state enterprises:W.R. Grace & Company from United States of America - Source of contamination
UniFirst Corporation from United States of America - Source of contamination
Wildwood Conservation Corps (Wildwood) from United States of America - Source of contamination, potentially responsible party
Beatrice Foods (Beatrice) from United States of America - Potentially Responsible Party
Relevant government actors:U.S. EPA, Center for Disease Control.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:For a Cleaner Environment (FACE) - FACE was instrumental in the initiation of early health studies in Woburn, after they approached researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. FACE was also involved in the remediation of Wells G and H.; Harvard University researchers; Toxics Action Center (Massachusetts Campaign to Clean Up Hazardous Waste)
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Local government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Forms of mobilization:Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
Other Health impactsIngestion of contaminated water (type of contaminants varies widely but they are all industrial) resulting in numerous sick children and adults as well as deaths, primarily from cancer. Specific impact on children.
Socio-economical ImpactsPotential: Violations of human rights
Outcome
Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Application of CERCLA (Superfund)
Development of alternatives:Wells G and H were shut down but cleanup will be ongoing for another 20 years.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Despite the settlement out of court, victims' families did not get proper compensation for the deaths of their loved ones. No apology was ever made to the community impacted by the contaminated drinking water. Even prior to the drilling of the wells, the City was warned by an engineering study that the water was contaminated and the City moved forward with the development anyway.
Sources and Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Notice of Potential Liability at the Southwest Properties portion of Operable Unit Two of the Wells G & H Superfund Site located in Woburn, Massachusetts - Holland Arena
[click to view]

Notice of Potential Liability at the Southwest Properties portion of Operable Unit Two of the Wells G & H Superfund Site located in Woburn, Massachusetts - W.R. Grace
[click to view]

Notice of Liability to the W.R. Grace Co., Inc. for their property located at 369 Washington Street, Woburn, MA., hereinafter referred to as "the facility".
[click to view]

Wells G & H Record of Decision
[click to view]

Notice of Potential Liability at the Southwest Properties portion of Operable Unit Two of the Wells G & H Superfund Site located in Woburn, Massachusetts - Beatrice Foods (Riley Tannery)
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[1] Complaint Filed on Toxic Pollution in Woburn - May 14, 1984
[click to view]

[2] Wells G & H Fact Sheet. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Feb 23, 2016
[click to view]

[3] Woburn: A Legacy of Waste, Contamination. Boston University School of Public Health. Aug 25, 2014
[click to view]

[4] Woburn: A Legacy of Waste, The Lawsuit. Boston University School of Public Health. Aug 25, 2014.
[click to view]

[5] The Ugly Truth: Mass. Superfund Sites Still Toxic Nearly 30 Years And More Than $1B Later. WBUR News. May 22, 2011.
[click to view]

[6] The Bay State's toxic legacy. The Center for Public Integrity. May 24, 2011.
[click to view]

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Case Summary - Anne Anderson et al. v. W.R. Grace & Co. et al.
[click to view]

In the Shadow of Woburn
[click to view]

Review: CONTAMINATED WATER AND LEUKEMIA IN WOBURN, MA: The Failings of Civil Action
[click to view]

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

Toxics Action Center
[click to view]

Other documents

Maps of Woburn
[click to view]

Maps of Woburn part 2
[click to view]

WOBURN CHILDHOOD LEUKEMIA FOLLOW-UP STUDY - July 1997
[click to view]

Gretchen Latowsky - director of FACE - and Donna Robbins
[click to view]

Cancer Incidence and Environmental Hazards 1969 – 1978 The Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH), with assistance from the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), has completed an investigation of possible associations between the incidence of certain cancers and environmental hazards in Woburn for the period 1969 – 1978.
[click to view]

Meta information
Contributor:Bernadette Grafton, [email protected], and Paul Mohai, [email protected]; University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability (formerly known as the School of Natural Resources and Environment)
Last update15/11/2018
Comments
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