In all his years as an attorney, Jan Schlichtmann has had few lawsuits so profoundly affect him as a1982 case involving eight Woburn families and a public water supply contaminated by toxic chemicals. Profiled in numerous newspaper, television and radio accounts along with the movie “A Civil Action” starring John Travolta, the lawsuit became a watershed event in environmental politics for Massachusetts and the nation.
Yet today, nearly 30 years after that landmark court case, the wells that supplied both toxic drinking water and a legacy of cancer to Woburn remain contaminated despite a $21 million cleanup effort. And no one, not even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency which monitors the site as part of the federal Superfund program, knows whether humans are still being exposed to its witch’s brew of chemicals, federal records show.
“Woburn made people see the profound health effects that can occur from contaminated sites,” says Schlichtmann, who settled the 1982 case for $8 million. “The ugly truth is that the damage we do today will take a long time to fix.”
Woburn isn’t alone when it comes to facing “the ugly truth” hidden in its soil and water. Twenty five other Bay State communities, all home to Superfund sites, still live with a toxic legacy despite millions of dollars spent to clean them up.
From Cape Cod to the Berkshires and beyond, few communities are left untouched by the contamination. With between 3,000 and 5,000 polluted sites currently listed with the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and 40,000 others already cleaned up by that agency since 1985, the state remains a patchwork of toxicity.