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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Woburn Update

Air Date: Week of

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Living on Earth’s Chris Ballman has a reporter’s notebook about a new toxic waste controversy in Woburn.


CURWOOD: Just prior to the release of the movie "A Civil Action" a few years ago, Living on Earth's Chris Ballman produced a documentary about the lessons learned in Woburn. As he explains in this reporter's notebook, there's a new chapter to the story.


BALLMAN: It's a little hard to believe I'm on my way to cover another story about toxic waste in Woburn. But there's one thing people in Woburn told me over and over during my interviews with them a few years back, was that it would never happen there again. Their A Civil Action experience left them better informed, better prepared, and more environmentally aware. I remember resident and former State Representative Nick Paleologos summing up the sentiment this way.

PALEOLOGOS: We do now have a much more heightened awareness of not just the water, but a whole host of other things from, you know, asbestos in the schools and lead in the, you know, whatever.


WOMAN: I wonder if the landfill was over the west side, would Mr. Dever have allowed so much to be dumped? [Clapping.] I'm sorry. I just don't understand why you're all fighting. Why don't you just test it and prove to all of us that live up here?

MAN: It has been tested, ma'am. We have the data. We have it.

WOMAN: When 20 or 30 years passes, and somebody has cancer, can I come to you and tell you?

MAN: Absolutely.

BALLMAN: At the St. Anthony's Club in North Woburn, a meeting is underway about the town's current environment problem: a municipal landfill that most folks thought was shut down in 1986. Turns out the city started accepting waste there again as a way to fund a permanent cap for the site. The dump sits atop an aquifer that supplies drinking water to some residents. And Michael Raymond says when he and some of his neighbors who live near the dump went up to take a look around, they didn't like what they found.

RAYMOND: We found medical waste the two times that we were up there. We found highly corrosive material. I saw liquid leaching off of the mountain, underneath the barrier that's not even in place. I'm seeing some pretty nasty stuff in that landfill.

DEVER: What people don't understand: the materials that are brought in are not pretty, but they are approved.

BALLMAN: That's Robert Dever. Up until a few days ago he was Woburn's mayor. And he's come to this meeting to defend his handling of the landfill operation.

DEVER: We have done to the letter of the law everything that we should be doing. There's an element of panic or hysteria about this thing that is absolutely not appropriate.

BALLMAN: As Dever turned to answer another reporter's questions a bystander recalled that back in the '70's people called Anne Anderson hysterical when she insisted that drinking water from a contaminated city well was the cause of her son Jimmy's leukemia. Turns out Anne Anderson was right.

Today folks here worry about the town's attitude almost as much as they worry about what might be lying in the landfill. Woburn has been so poked, prodded, studied and scrutinized by health experts that people felt safe under the watchful eye of science. They assumed city officials were looking out for them too, and they thought Woburn had learned its lesson about pollution. Now, residents like Marie Coady say they're not so sure.

COADY: And I think the thing that really struck me is today I took-- I take a ride by there every once in awhile—and today I went by. And as I was leaving and turning around to get out of the parking lot I could see the tower of the new transportation center named after Jimmy Anderson. And I get all choked up, because it just seems so ironic. There it was, a Superfund site that it's supposed to be remediated and everything's supposed to be fine, and we're having another problem.

BALLMAN: To be fair to former Mayor Dever, it's way too soon to tell if there's any health threat from the landfill. North Woburn residents just want to get some tests done to find out. The new mayor says he's looking into it and some state lawmakers are supporting the residents, and perhaps that's the lesson this time around. Public officials are heeding residents' concerns just months after the issue was brought to their attention. It took Anne Anderson years to get anyone in town to take her seriously.

Also, as I look around, there's at least 100 people here at this meeting on a cold January football Sunday afternoon. Twenty years ago, the Civil Action began with only 13 families. The landfill issue is now on the city's agenda, and no child had to die or get sick to make that happen. And maybe that's progress enough. For Living on Earth, I'm Chris Ballman in Woburn, Massachusetts.



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