TCE Plays Significant Role in Infamous Contamination Cases

A cocky Boston attorney, played by John Travolta, abandons his usual role when he accepts a case unlikely to yield a big payoff: representing families whose children have died of exposure to toxic waste in their Massachusetts neighborhood. Taking on two corporations accused of improperly dumping the chemicals that tainted public wells, the attorney is eventually forced to live in his office after he maxes out his resources.

Is it the plot line for a Hollywood drama, or one of the many real-life examples nationwide of trichloroethylene — or TCE — contamination causing health problems, legal battles and wrenching headlines?

The answer: Both.

The 1998 film A Civil Action, starring Travolta and based on the book by Jonathan Harr, is about a case from the 1980s out of Woburn, Mass., that has since become a famous example of the effects of TCE, the industrial solvent once commonly used as a degreasing agent but since recognized as a carcinogen. Travolta played attorney Jan Schlichtmann, who represented several Woburn families whose children had developed or died from leukemia and who sued Beatrice Foods (which was acquitted) and W. R. Grace and Co. (which paid an $8 million settlement).

While the initial outcome disappointed the families and their lawyer, the EPA went on to conclude that both companies were guilty of contaminating the wells. A subsequent lawsuit brought by the EPA forced the companies to pay for one of the largest chemical cleanups in national history, at a cost of about $64 million.

In Hanover, where TCE spills in the 1970s prompted a groundwater cleanup effort and a new round of testing for vapor pollution, the situation is considerably less grave. Officials say ventilation systems installed at the lab and being installed in Dartmouth-owned housing should eliminate the health risk of the potentially carcinogenic vapor. And while questions linger about why it took officials so long to conduct tests and notify the public, there is no evidence that anyone has been harmed.

In addition to the Woburn, Mass., groundwater case, a sampling of the many national cases of the real effects of TCE contamination in groundwater and soil gas include:

∎ The Marine Corps’ Camp Lejeune, where a simple test could have alerted officials that the drinking water was contaminated with compounds including TCE long before authorities determined that as many as a million Marines and their families were exposed and the well was closed in 1984, The Associated Press reported last month. A former drill sergeant blames the water for the leukemia that killed his 9-year-old daughter in 1985, and at least seven dozen men with Lejeune ties have been diagnosed with a rare form of breast cancer.

The Marine Corps maintains that the test — which was required by Navy health directives as early as 1963 — would not have uncovered the carcinogens, but critics say it could have signaled a problem. Last year, President Obama signed the Camp Lejeune Veterans and Family Act to provide medical care and screening for Marines and their families, but not civilians, exposed at the North Carolina base between 1957 and 1987.

∎ Love Canal, where TCE was one in a long list of chemicals in a covered-over landfill that ultimately percolated up into homes built there in the late 1950s. The beginnings of a canal were constructed in the southeast corner of Niagara Falls, N.Y., in the early 1900s, but that plan was abandoned and the site became a chemical dumping ground for the city and several facilities, including what was then Hooker Chemical and what is now Occidental Petroleum Corp., before being covered in 1953. The city bought the land for $1, and homes and a school were built there in the later part of the decade. But in the late ’70s, tragedy broke loose:

“I visited the canal area at that time,” regional EPA administrator Eckardt C. Beck wrote in the agency’s journal in 1979. “Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.”

The government ultimately relocated hundreds of families and reimbursed them for their homes, and Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act. A federal judge ruled in 1994 that Hooker/Occidental had been negligent, but not reckless, and the EPA sued the company the following year, resulting in $129 million in restitution on top of residents’ private lawsuits.

∎ An ongoing case at an auto parts facility in Dayton, Ohio, where the EPA has set forth a pair of administrative orders in recent years essentially taking over TCE groundwater contamination cleanup efforts after finding the owner’s efforts to be ineffective. Anthony Roisman, who contributed to the Woburn case and is now a managing partner with the National Legal Scholars Law Firm, is one of a team of lawyers involved in a class-action lawsuit against Behr, which purchased a former Chrysler facility in Dayton and assumed responsibility for TCE groundwater contamination cleanup caused by Chrysler’s spills and leaks. The lawsuit represents almost 1,000 homes, where shallow groundwater contamination is evaporating and getting into residents’ basements, he said. Residents have been required to have a gas collection system installed to attempt to ventilate the gases outside the home from beneath the slab, which he said “turns everybody’s house into a little mini hazardous waste disposal facility.”

Maggie Cassidy can be reached at or 603-727-3220.


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