Published in the Boston Phoenix on December 24, 1993. Copyright © 1993 by the Boston Phoenix, Inc. All rights reserved.

By Dan Kennedy

It’s a rainy, windy day, and the aluminum observation tower shakes with each gust. But Dale Kling, an engineer for Monsanto who’s in charge of cleaning up the toxic-waste site below, doesn’t seem to notice. He points out the arsenic, lead, and chromium pits that will be covered over and the areas where contaminated groundwater will be pumped out and treated. The sulfur-dioxide gas that leaks out of a pile of old hides will be burned off, he explains, and the surrounding air tested to make sure it complies with federal regulations. “That way,” he says slyly, “we won’t stink up Gretchen’s backyard party.”

Gretchen Latowsky, director of For a Cleaner Environment (FACE), a local citizens’ group, responds with a tight smile.

Kling, a slow-talking Texan who wears work boots and jeans with a MONSANTO belt buckle, has been stationed in Woburn for three years. He was brought in to clean up the Industri-Plex, a 245-acre property that was home for 150 years to tanneries and chemical companies. Monsanto, one of the companies that polluted the property, has taken the lead in designing and implementing the project, under the supervision of the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program.

The Industri-Plex is one of two massive waste sites discovered in Woburn 14 years ago. The second, known as Wells G and H, is a couple of miles to the south. There, municipal wells supplied drinking water to residents in the eastern third of Woburn from 1964 until 1979, when state officials discovered that the water was contaminated with a slew of industrial solvents. Some researchers have linked the contamination to an increase in childhood leukemia in Woburn, a tragic pattern that persisted until seven years after the wells had been shut down.

Yet cleanup at the 330-acre G and H site has barely begun. Groundwater is being pumped and treated, but the EPA says that process is likely to last at least 50 years. Contaminated soil will be treated in high-tech incinerators.

The EPA’s efforts here are both hopeful and troubling. Hopeful because after 14 years of environmental testing, legal negotiations, and numerous false starts, cleanup operations are under way on both properties. Troubling because the more that is learned about the area, the more those efforts seem inadequate, even futile.

And the experience of Woburn, a small (population: 36,000) middle-class city with blue-collar roots, is hardly exceptional. Woburn is something of a microcosm of the EPA’s efforts to clean up toxic waste nationwide. Superfund hasn’t worked as well as environmentalists had hoped, and as the years stretch on between detecting waste problems and solving them, many are beginning to rethink the assumptions behind the environmental legislation.

“At one time,” says Latowsky, “we thought you could just cover over the site and leave it. I don’t think we fully understood the hazards involved. If we could assess the hazards better, it would be easier to make choices about how to deal with the problem.”

Indeed, there was a certain hubris that pervaded those first attempts to clean up the toxic waste. In the late 1970s and early ’80s, when the nightly news featured dying kids from Woburn and evacuated neighborhoods in Love Canal, New York, environmentalists and elected officials joined to solve the problem. The result: the Superfund program, which gives the EPA the muscle to force property owners to take action and the money the agency needs to step in when property owners can’t — or won’t — fulfill their responsibilities. The lessons that have been learned since then are complex and, in some cases, contradictory.

In Woburn, for instance, at the same time citizens like Latowsky were coming to terms with the reality that cleaning up the area would be far more difficult than they had once believed, they were also allowing themselves to consider a once-heretical thought: that maybe returning the land and groundwater to a pristine state isn’t all that important. After all, turning off Wells G and H solved the childhood-leukemia problem. And putting fences around contaminated properties keeps kids from joyriding there on their dirt bikes and getting exposed to airborne chemicals. (Paving over waste sites works just as well, and that’s exactly what Mayor John Rabbitt hopes to do with the Industri-Plex. He plans to build a train-and-bus station there that, along with a new interchange off I-93, he says, will bring 12,000 to 16,000 jobs to the area by 2010.)

“The public has to be prepared to allow certain amounts of contamination to exist without being cleaned up. I hate to say that, but it’s true,” says Latowsky, who acknowledges she would probably never have said such a thing 10 years ago.

With this new pragmatism has come a blurring of the traditional lines in the sand between residents and industry, between environmentalists and government officials.

Partly it’s fatigue. Latowsky’s group, FACE, at one time hundreds strong, was instrumental in pressuring government to acknowledge the leukemia cases and to move ahead with cleanup plans. Today FACE is down to a handful of activists, its office closed and its grant money gone.

But partly it’s because there are no clearly defined good guys and bad guys. Monsanto may have helped contaminate the Industri-Plex, but Latowsky has no reason to mistrust Dale Kling — although she is keeping a close eye on both Monsanto and the EPA to make sure so-called institutional controls are strong enough to guarantee continued monitoring and to prevent future developers from digging up waste again.

W.R. Grace & Company is infamous for its role in polluting Wells G and H, and in 1986 it paid out some $8 million in an out-of-court settlement with 13 families of leukemia victims. But the Grace division whose employees dumped chemicals into a ditch is long gone; the manager who allegedly ordered the dumping is dead. Today Grace is one of Woburn’s model corporate citizens.

The environmental-action group Greenpeace, which keeps tabs on Superfund nationally, is unhappy that the EPA has cleaned up only 55 of the 1,311 sites across the country. But at the same time it notes the agency’s record is improving, and it defends Superfund against attacks from the chemical industry — which, Greenpeace fears, may have a friend in the White House.

CLEANING UP the two Woburn sites will cost more than $100 million — about $50 million for the Industri-Plex, and between $50 million $70 million for Wells G and H. Nearly all of those costs will be paid for by the present and former property owners determined by the EPA to have been responsible for poisoning the land and water. (The $1.6 billion-a-year Superfund, financed mainly through a tax on industry, is tapped only when the responsible parties can’t pay — or if they refuse to come to an agreement, in which case the EPA may resort to a little-used weapon: it cleans up the property itself, and then sues the property owners for triple damages.)

The Woburn sites, however, are but a tiny fraction of the Aberjona River watershed, which encompasses Woburn and seven other communities from Wilmington to Medford. The region has been a hotbed of industry for well over a century. And there’s an emerging consensus that the area is loaded with toxic hot spots, many — if not most — still undiscovered.

Harry Hemond, a civil-engineering professor at MIT, is one of the directors of a long-range study aimed at determining exactly what chemicals the 50,000 residents who live in the Aberjona watershed have been exposed to and how the exposure has affected their health. The study has turned him into a critic of how Superfund works. Because the program looks at pollution on a property-by-property basis, EPA officials are effectively prevented from considering pollution damage to an entire ecosystem.

“I do believe very much that the watershed-oriented approach is essential,” Hemond says. “I think our studies show this to be the case. Superfund has a very legalistic flavor to it. I recognize that in enforcement actions you have to follow the law and use the law, but the science can get overwhelmed by the law.”

Latowsky points to an example from each of the Woburn sites. Arsenic-contaminated groundwater appears to be flowing off the Industri-Plex property, and can be found in the riverbed’s soil for several miles downstream — yet there are no plans to clean up that contamination. At the Wells G and H site, W.R. Grace built a pump-and-treat plan to purify groundwater — and that plant was reportedly overwhelmed when it pulled in pollution from off site. (Inquiries to Grace were referred to company attorney Mark Stoler, who declined to comment.)

Critics also charge the investigation and negotiations take so long that by the time work begins, the cleanup technology is often out of date. In Woburn, for instance, the EPA issued “records of decision” — legal documents binding the responsible property owners — for the Industri-Plex in 1986, and Wells G and H in 1989. Both those records of decision were based on data that had been collected several years earlier.

“Maybe if the EPA moved a little quicker between the time the record of decision happens and the time the remedy takes place, there wouldn’t be outdated technology, says Rob Sargent, a toxic-waste expert for MassPIRG (the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group).

Nick Paleologos, who was Woburn’s state representative when the toxic-waste sites were discovered and who helped create a state Superfund program to deal with smaller sites, expresses frustration with the process: “In 1979, when this was on the front page of the <i>Boston Globe</i>, I thought we’d be looking, at the most, at five years to diagnose it, assess the responsibility, and clean it up. It dragged on and dragged on and dragged on.”

EPA officials, understandably, defend their work. Joseph DeCola, the agency’s project manager for the Industri-Plex site, argues that the record of decision can be amended as new information is gathered. “In a perfect world, you would know everything there is to know about the contamination on the site prior to signing the ROD [record of decision], but that doesn’t happen,” he says, adding he’s now negotiating with responsible parties to do still more testing at the Industri-Plex site. Adds Merrill Hohman, the EPA’s director of waste management for New England: “There is some flexibility. We can modify a record of decision.”

But Jay Naparstek, a neutral observer — he spent a number of years overseeing the Industri-Plex site for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection — agrees with critics like Harry Hemond. Calling the record of decision “a very inflexible document,” Naparstek says it’s characteristic of the program’s shortcomings.

“I think everybody involved in Superfund sees that as a problem,” Naparstek says. “The process takes a long time from the time the ROD is signed until the time we actually begin building something. And by the time we begin to implement the technology available in the ROD, there may be better technology available. We could get caught up in this cycle forever.”

As for the difficulties posed by dealing with toxic waste on a property-by-property basis instead of looking at the ecosystem as a whole, Hohman points to several instances across the country where the EPA has tried to deal with pollution in a holistic way — the Rio Grande, the Great Lakes, and, locally, the Merrimack River on both sides of the Massachusetts-New Hampshire border. He also notes that the EPA is conducting its own study of the Aberjona River. But, he admits, “Superfund isn’t designed to respond to a geographic area. It’s difficult because of the statutory need to deal with so many things on a property-specific basis.”

THE SUPERFUND program has come under considerable attack since it took effect in 1981.

But the record shows that Superfund has been problematic since its stormy birth. A child of the final days of the Carter administration, the program was implemented by the pro-industry and anti-environment appointees of Ronald Reagan.

It didn’t get much better after Congress reauthorized Superfund in 1986, giving the EPA a bigger tax on industry and greater power to compel cleanup. Critics charged the EPA took too long negotiating with responsible parties rather than forcing them to come to terms, and had in many cases settled for quick fixes and half-measures rather than permanent cleanups. A report issued several years ago by Congress’s Office of Technology Assessment acknowledged as much: “Superfund remains largely ineffective and inefficient. Technical evidence confirms that, all too frequently, Superfund is not working environmentally the way the law directs it to. This finding challenges all those concerned about human health and the environment to discover what is wrong and fix it.”

The Superfund law is scheduled to expire on September 30, 1994, and the tax lapses a year later, which puts environmentalists on the defensive. Because the chemical industry is gearing up for a major assault on the law when Congress takes up reauthorization, many in the environmental community are urging Congress to leave well enough alone and simply renew both the law and the tax.

“You don’t have a lot of completed cleanups, but you have hundreds of cleanups going on,” says Rick Hind, legislative director of Greenpeace’s toxics campaign. “We find ourselves in the unusual position of having to defend EPA.”

“Most of what Congress is considering is the agenda of polluters who want to further weaken the law,” Hinds adds. “It may be a net loss when Congress opens the statute up, because it is one of the stronger federal laws on the books. It is not being administered aggressively, and it is being sabotaged by industry.”

The chemical industry is mounting a full frontal assault on one of Superfund’s most controversial aspects — strict joint and several liability, under which a party that’s responsible for polluting even an infinitesimal part of a property, or that simply owns contaminated land, can be held liable for the entire mess. The Chemical Manufacturers Association is touting a “fair share” liability plan that would eliminate strict joint and several liability. Cleanup costs at a Superfund site would be assigned on a “proportional” basis, to be determined by an administrative judge.

Rick Hind says strict joint and several liability is based on 200 years of common law, and it works in the public’s interest because polluting companies, rather than the public, pay the cost of identifying the responsible parties. “All we have to do is bring one company in,” he says. “Then they will sue for contributions from the remaining parties. In fact, they will point the finger at the other parties so the EPA will bring them in, too.

“Superfund is probably the best free-market regulator of pollution prevention on the books.”

Hind and other environmentalists worry because a seemingly innocuous statement Bill Clinton made during his first State of the Union address sounded to them like an assault on strict liability: “I’d like to use that Superfund to clean up pollution for a change and not just pay lawyers,” Clinton said, to bipartisan applause. To Hind, that sounded suspiciously similar to the chemical industry’s rhetoric. “We don’t trust him,” Hind says, adding, “Why are they [industry] hiring lawyers? To evade cleanup. To evade responsibility. No one cares how much drug-cartel members spend on their defense lawyers.”

The EPA’s Mel Hohman, though, says his agency will likely propose reforms to reduce the burden on parties that bear little responsibility, but will not do away with strict liability. He agrees with Hind that it’s one of the EPA’s strongest weapons: “If you get five companies in a room, each of those companies knows that any time I want I can bang out an order against one of them. That’s a pretty hefty threat.”

Then there’s this question: how clean is clean? It’s a frustrating one for Hohman, who says he’s seen the pendulum swing from a philosophy of containment in the early ’80s, to permanent cleanup in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and now back to less-costly projects so the public can get a bigger bang for its buck. As Congress takes up Superfund reauthorization, he says, “I think this might actually be a more difficult problem, with more debate, than liability.”

Certainly the chemical industry plans to have its say. In a recent press release, Chemical Manufacturers Association president Robert Burt, head of the Chicago-based FMC Corporation, said cleanup standards should be eased to reflect “real risks to human health at a site; the community’s plans for future use of the site — including economic redevelopments; the technological feasibility of cleanup alternatives; or the availability of equally safe, and much faster and less expensive remedies.”

It’s an agenda Hind plans to fight, saying those who advocate lowering cleanup standards are “not thinking ahead that today’s groundwater is tomorrow’s drinking water.”

BACK IN WOBURN, though, Gretchen Latowsky has become skeptical about whether toxic waste can ever be cleaned up the way environmentalists would like. She lives in Reading, less than a mile from the Industri-Plex site. She remembers that back in 1979, when developers started bulldozing the property to build a shopping mall (a plan that never got off the boards after the pollution was discovered), she could smell the “Woburn odor,” as it was called, even with all the windows in her house shut. “It was nauseating, like rotten eggs,” she says.

Her motivation for getting involved, she says, was simple: “I had two little kids, and we didn’t know what was causing the leukemia.” (The contaminated water from Wells G and H was not pumped to Reading, and Latowsky’s family has not suffered any health problems.)

She sees nothing simple, though, about the toxic-waste problems that remain — both in Woburn and nationally. Cleaning up the entire Aberjona watershed, she figures, would cost several hundred million dollars on top of the $100 million-plus that’s already been spent. She’s not sure it’s worth it.

“Without being confined to property boundaries,” she says, “we need to identify the risks to the community in the immediate future and the long term, and make some choices about how to reduce exposure or eliminate exposure to those risks. And probably society needs to decide how much it’s willing to pay. Is it possible to remediate this extent of contamination in the watershed, or can we make some decisions about what poses the greatest risk and remediate that?

“Look at the problems in Somalia, look at Bosnia. People are starving. We’re helping the economy, we’ve provided a lot of jobs here. I guess I’m getting cynical, but nationally we haven’t cleaned up any of the hard problems. We’re not making any progress at all, because we don’t know what to do with it.

“We used to think it could be cleaned up. But the reality is, in 14 years nothing’s really been cleaned up. All they’ve done is shut off the wells and put a fence around the Industri-Plex.”

Discover more from Media Nation

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.