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
NameWater contamination and environmental liabilities from chemical companies, Woburn (Mass), USA
CountryUnited States of America
ProvinceMassachusetts
SiteWoburn
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 CommoditiesWater
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsThe wells supplied 30 percent of the city's drinking water.

Five properties within the approximate 330 acres of the site were found to be contaminated. This became a famous and costly Superfund (CERCLA) case.

Property: W.R. Grace & Company

- In the last six years of operation, 53 pounds of total VOCs have been destroyed in 20 million gallons of water.

Property: UniFirst Corporation

- In the six years of operation, 1307 pounds of total VOCs have been destroyed in 135 million gallons of groundwater.

Property: Wildwood Conservation Trust, Beatrice Foods

- Beatrice removed 67 tons of hazardous sludge, 354 tons of non-hazardous sludge, 255 tons of debris soils, 45 drum carcasses, and 987 tons of mixed-contaminant soils from the Wildwood property.

Both Grace and Beatrice are paying for the largest and most expensive toxic cleanup in U.S. history, with costs already topping $68,000,000.
Project Area (in hectares)160
Type of PopulationUrban
Start Date01/01/1964
Company Names or State EnterprisesW.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 actorsU.S. EPA, Center for Disease Control.
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersFor 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)
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)MEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingLocal government/political parties
Neighbours/citizens/communities
Forms of MobilizationLawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Impacts
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Health ImpactsVisible: Deaths, Other environmental related diseases
OtherIngestion 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-economic ImpactsPotential: Violations of human rights
Outcome
Project StatusStopped
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCompensation
Environmental improvements, rehabilitation/restoration of area
Court decision (failure for environmental justice)
Application of CERCLA (Superfund)
Development of AlternativesWells G and H were shut down but cleanup will be ongoing for another 20 years.
Do you consider this as a success?No
Why? Explain briefly.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
Legislations

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]

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]

References

[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

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]

Media Links

Toxics Action Center
[click to view]

Other Documents

Maps of Woburn
[click to view]

Maps of Woburn part 2
[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]

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

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

Meta Information
ContributorBernadette 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
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