Published in The New Republic on March 15, 1999.

By Dan Kennedy

Copyright © 1999 by Daniel D. Kennedy

If there was one emblematic scene from A Civil Action — the semipopular, second-rate movie based on the highly popular, first-rate book about pollution and illness in Woburn, Massachusetts — it was the closing sequence, which hammers home the one-man-up-against-the-system theme. In the scene, John Travolta, playing Jan Schlichtmann, the brash young lawyer who sued two companies that may have contaminated the city’s drinking water, writes a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency. The letter details what Schlichtmann discovered in the course of pursuing his unsuccessful lawsuit and urges the agency to pick up where he left off. Cut to trucks delivering boxes of evidence to an EPA warehouse. As the movie fades, a screen of text tells us that Schlichtmann’s efforts prompted the EPA to order a $69 million cleanup, with a good chunk of the bill to be paid by W.R. Grace & Company and Beatrice Foods Company — the very corporations that had bested Schlichtmann in the courtroom.

It makes for an uplifting conclusion to a decidedly downbeat story. It is also completely and utterly false. But, unlike most of the fictionalizations, exaggerations, and dramatizations in the transition from Jonathan Harr’s best-seller to the Hollywood screen, the tale of Schlichtmann and the EPA is likely to have a lasting — and distorting — effect on the moviegoers who saw the film over the past few months. The notion that it took one lone ranger to force an uncaring, unresponsive government bureaucracy to act may resonate. But it’s not true — or, at least, it wasn’t in Woburn. The EPA was on the scene for several years before Schlichtmann had even heard of Woburn. The three companies Schlichtmann sued — Grace, Beatrice, and UniFirst Corporation, an industrial dry-cleaning company that settled for about $1 million before the 1986 trial — had already been identified by the EPA as possible sources of contamination to the East Woburn groundwater aquifer that fed the two polluted wells. EPA officials complained that Schlichtmann’s suit actually delayed the cleanup, since they believed Grace and Beatrice were loath to cooperate with efforts that could somehow benefit Schlichtmann.

But, if Woburn is not a story of government indifference as portrayed by the film version of A Civil Action, neither is it a story of a decisive government forcing polluters to answer for their misdeeds. What really happened is quite a bit more complicated than either of those propositions suggests. It also raises serious questions about government’s ability to protect the health and safety of its citizens even today, when knowledge of toxic waste’s dangers is widespread — questions very different from those the moviegoers were asking one another as they drove home from their local multiplexes in the past few months.

THE EVENTS that culminated in A Civil Action trace back to 1972, when doctors diagnosed Jimmy Anderson, the three-and-a-half-year-old son of Anne and Charles Anderson, with leukemia. The Andersons lived in Woburn, a working-class Boston suburb home to some 35,000 residents and a handful of industries that spewed toxic waste.

Long before Jimmy died in 1981, Anne Anderson had begun to suspect that the foul-smelling, foul-tasting water that corroded her pipes had also caused Jimmy’s illness. Her suspicions deepened as she met other Woburn families while bringing her son to Boston for treatment. Eventually, investigators reported that the 28 childhood leukemia cases diagnosed in Woburn between 1964 and 1986 were four times greater than should have been expected for a community of its size. Anderson kept her concerns mainly to herself until May 1979, when discarded barrels of chemicals were discovered near the Aberjona River, upstream from the wells. State investigators tested the wells and found no evidence that the contents of the barrels had made their way into them. What they did find, though, was even worse: drinking water contaminated with trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, and other industrial solvents.

In retrospect, the party most responsible for the cancer epidemic these chemicals may have produced was the city itself. Given that a toxic brew of chemicals had been floating through Woburn’s Aberjona River valley for more than 150 years, it’s mind-boggling that officials even considered pumping such water into people’s homes. Yet they did. And, even though the consultant they hired in 1958 recommended against tapping such groundwater given its likely toxicity, they went ahead and sank two wells by the river — one in 1964 and one in 1967. (In fairness, the instruments of that day were too crude to detect the chemicals that were at issue in the trial.) When the 1979 test results came back — proving those suspicions correct — the state did the only thing it could at the time: it shut down the wells, permanently. And, after two decades of legislative initiatives, epidemiological studies, groundwater modeling, and cleanup efforts, that simple act of turning off the faucet stands as the only truly effective action government officials have ever taken.

Of course, that story isn’t the focus of A Civil Action, as presented on screen. The film instead centers on the lawsuit that grew out of the Woburn families’ perfectly justifiable desire to hold the corporations that they believed had actually polluted their water accountable — to force them to apologize and to make them pay. Yet the movie’s retelling of this episode, and its relatively flattering portrayal of Schlichtmann, serve primarily to muddle the true message of the case.

To be sure, the odds were against Schlichtmann, who was up against the limits of science and was overmatched by Beatrice’s and Grace’s high-paid corporate lawyers. Yet he all but ensured his own defeat by walking away from a possible $8 million pretrial settlement with Beatrice and by allowing his poorly prepared star witness, Princeton University hydrogeologist George Pinder, to present an inaccurate theory of how groundwater moves in the Aberjona River valley. After a 78-day trial, the jury cleared Beatrice. And, though the jurors found Grace had negligently contaminated the wells, U.S. District Court Judge Walter Jay Skinner threw out the verdict and ordered a retrial because they supplied contradictory answers to Skinner’s overly complex written instructions. Grace settled for $8 million, with each of the eight families Schlichtmann represented getting about $400,000. Not only was no apology forthcoming, but Grace continues to insist that chemicals dumped on its property never flowed into the wells.

THOSE SETBACKS notwithstanding, there’s no question that much has been learned as a result of Woburn. Schlichtmann himself personifies many of those lessons: these days, he talks about solving such cases through cooperation and mediation rather than courtroom confrontation, an approach he’s now pursuing in a toxic-waste case strikingly similar to Woburn’s, in Toms River, New Jersey. Yet the primary lesson of the Woburn story is, or should have been, for government to take responsible steps to protect the public in the first place. And, ironically enough, this lesson has been learned only imperfectly. The cleanup project that Grace, Beatrice, UniFirst, and two other property owners are paying for is, in some respects, a testimony to government impotence: it will take decades before the groundwater is clean enough to drink, and in any case a succession of newly enlightened city officials has pledged that the aquifer will never again be tapped. Meanwhile, in North Woburn, federal, state, and city officials are making plans to pave over yet another toxic-waste site, known as the Industri-Plex, and convert it into a Target department store and a train station, even though contaminated groundwater continues to flow off the site — in effect, covering up the toxic waste, keeping an eye on it, and hoping for the best. The city’s current mayor, Robert Dever, a retired airline pilot, says only that the groundwater problem will be addressed as part of the development plans. That’s not exactly a happy ending. But, then, when was real life ever like the movies?

Dan Kennedy covered the Woburn toxic-waste trial and its aftermath for the Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn. He has also written about the case for the Boston Phoenix, where he is the media critic.

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