Woburn, Massachusetts: A Water Quality Case Study

Mandy Spence and Amanda Stephenson


Uncontaminated drinking water is an essential component to human health and survival. Consumption of contaminated water over a long period of time can cause physical infirmities ranging from digestive dysfunction to nervous system disorders, cancer, and even death. Unfortunately, dangerous contamination in drinking water is not always readily detected or treated, and its effects are not critically acknowledged. One problem in treating pollution and stopping the spread of contaminants within a water supply is identification of the contaminating agent. This can also be an issue in assigning legal responsibility for the negative health effects of public water contamination; this was the case in Woburn, Massachusetts when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as well as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals were detected in the groundwater supply for two municipal wells.

Contamination (defined as the changes in average stream water caused by humans) of the Aberjona River in Massachusetts began as early as 1648, when Woburn's first tannery opened. The industry continued to expand, and by 1865 Woburn was home to 21 active tanning and currying shops. VOCs associated with the tanning industry would come to be associated with severe illness and death in the Woburn community one hundred years later. From 1863 through 1929, Woburn Chemical Works operated one of the country's largest industrial complexes on what is now dubbed the Industriplex waste site, upriver from the polluted Wells G&H.

Pollution was detected as early as 1927, when the city decided to construct a sewer to alleviate the problem. In 1958 the city's public water consultant warned that, "the groundwaters of this [Aberjona River] valley are, in general, too polluted to be used for a public water supply." Two years later, W.R. Grace & Co. opened a small machine shop in Woburn. In 1964 the City of Woburn installed Well G in close proximity to the Aberjona River in order to meet the growing demand for public water, and this installation was to be followed three years later by the addition of Well H nearby. In 1975, the Massachusetts Department of Health recommended that Woburn not rely on Wells G & H due to chemical contamination, and one year later ordered the removal of manganese and iron from these wells. The wells were finally closed in 1979, when the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Quality Engineering found them contaminated with several VOCs, including trichloroethylene and tetrachloroethylene.

During their peak, Wells G & H supplied the City of Woburn with 30% of its public drinking water. In 1982 eight families charged W. R. Grace & Co. as well as two other local companies (Beatrice Foods and Unifirst) in a civil action with the deaths of children because of leukemia that they argued was the result of contamination by these factories. This lawsuit was the basis for the recent book and movie, "A Civil Action." Evidence was easily established that the cancer rate in Woburn was higher that would be expected based on national statistics, and these incidences were eventually linked without significant doubt to the pollution in the water from Wells G & H.

The question was who was at fault; the companies being charged were young relative to the city's history, but there was clear evidence of environmental negligence on the part of all three companies. In the end, the case was settled out of court but Grace conducted significant research to prove that since 50% of the well water came from the polluted Aberjona River, this was a more likely source of contamination than the Grace factory which was farther away, on a densely-packed plateau. The general layout of the area is shown on the map at the left. The Aberjona River is directly west of Wells G and H, while the Grace factory is farter north and east. Nevertheless, Grace had been negligible in its disposal of chemicals and waste.