The average person uses 80-100 gallons of water each day (USGS, n.d.). We wash our hands, bathe, drink, flush toilets, and cook with water. We even use it to grow our food and livestock. So how do we know if the water is not contaminated with dangerous toxins? In the 1970’s the United States passed an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Act that Drastically changed our lakes, ponds, rivers creeks, and our oceans.The Clean Water Act created basic regulations for putting pollutants in bodys of water whether it was by accident or not.
“The CWA made it unlawful to discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.” (EPA, 2019).
This meant that companies had to properly dispose of waste and if any was spilled they would have to pay for the clean up. This was an important law because most companies were dumping their toxic waste behind their buildings causing the toxins to run into the water sources near them, or just letting them drain from their factories straight into water ways.
In 1987 the CWA was amended to protect drinking sources, specifically targeting “nonpoint pollution” (Congressional Research Service, 2018). Nonpoint pollution is the runoff from farming and construction sights. This also directed states to develop “nonpoint pollution programs”, and the states were also encouraged to protect groundwater as their overall nonpoint pollution control efforts () .The major event that got the attention of the nation and our national government agencies was a town called Woburn.
The events that led to the town being contaminated caused the Clean Water Act to be amended once other realized the impact years of pollution had on the community and on the land itself.Woburn is a small town northwest of Boston. The town had a leather company that dumped the toxic chemicals into the ground.
When the town rapidly developed into an industrial town, the water supply became scarce. The town officials thought about drilling wells and it was soon discovered that the well water was so polluted with toxins that it was unsafe to drink. The town still drilled the wells even though the engineers that tested the water advised against it (Massmoments, n.d.).“According to a report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the groundwater was contaminated with industrial solvents, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE). Soil on the five properties was contaminated with VOCs, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and pesticides.
Sediments in the Aberjona River were contaminated with PAHs and heavy metals such as chromium, zinc, mercury and arsenic .” (Environmental Justice Atlas, n.d.)Trichloroethylene is an organic compound that is not naturally occurring. TCE is linked to causing kidney cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and possibly, liver cancer (National Cancer Institute, n.d.). TCE is also a hard substance to breakdown which means it remains in the environment for a very long time. Since it stays in the environment for a long time it can reach underground water reservoirs, which is what happened Woburn. Since the wells that supplied 30 percent of the town’s water supply was contaminated, people got this toxin from drinking anything that had the water in it (including ice cubes), food that used water, and washing foods like vegetables (Environmental Justice Atlas, n.d.; see also National Cancer Institute, n,d,).
Tetrachloroethylene is colorless and has a scent. It is used as a drying agent, but is also used to make other chemicals (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, n.d.). While PCE dissolves into the air quickly, it does not break down as easily in water. PCE causes changes in moods, vision, and coordination depending on how high your exposure is. Like TCE it contaminated the underground water supply and made its way into people’s households.
All of the toxins in the water corroded the pipes and had a distinct odor, most likely from the PCE, and that the water tastes bad. Only a few years later the children of Woburn started getting very sick. One mother, Anne Anderson, was “convinced that the cluster of leukemia cases in her neighborhood was far from a random occurrence”. Anderson was told by doctors that it would be difficult for anyone to prove that the conditions of the environment caused the spike of cancer in the area (Massmoments, n.d.).
In 1979, several barrels of toxins were found near the Aberjona River, the river that ran through the town. The state then tested the wells that were being used to supply water to the town and found TCE and other byproducts from the industries. Right after the toxins were discovered by the state, the wells were shut down, but the damage was already done to the people of Woburn. The local newspaper published a study that showed that the number of leukemia was much higher statistically than what it should have been. After this paper was published the federal Center for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency took notice (Massmoments, n.d.).
The families of the leukemia patients finally found a personal injury lawyer after Jimmy Anderson and many other children died. Jan Schlictman was to find the people responsible for contaminating the water and the ground. Jan was told by his colleagues to not take the case because they could never win against companies with millions of dollars and teams of lawyers.
He ignored his colleagues and filed the first complaint case on May 14, 1984. Jan and his firm spent 3.5 million dollars to win the case. The case needed extensive engineering studies and it needed first hand witnesses of the companies dumping the toxins. Only one company was fined but neither of the two companies, Grace and Beatrice, ever apologized to the families that lost loved ones for their carelessness (Massmoments, n.d.). In the end “The EPA, with the resources of the government behind it, pursued the issue.” (Massmoments, n.d.). Beatrice, the company that was not found guilty during the first trial, was found to be the source of contamination. Both companies are paying for the cleanup which has already cost 68 million dollars.
Dan kennedy a reporter that followed the case in Woburn for years stated that “Woburn caused ‘a sea of change in attitude’ among government officials” In 2011, nearly 30 years later, Woburn was still contaminated by the toxic chemicals and the wells that had originally been contaminated remains so despite a 21 million dollar cleanup effort. The U.S. Enviornmental Protection Agency, who monitors the site for the federal Superfound porgram, does not know if the people living in the area are still being heavily exposed to the toxins. The toxins have also moved to other areas in Massachusetts have also been contaminated and the EPA is thinking that cleanup will cost over 1 billion dollars ().