Decade After the Woburn Toxic Waste Case, Chemist Still Ponders
August 25, 2000
In 1990, chemist Michael DeCheke's meticulous
analysis of a soil sample swept him into the legal morass that became
known as the Woburn toxic waste trial, a lawsuit chronicled in Jonathan
Harr's book, "A Civil Action," and a movie by the same name.
A decade later, DeCheke's fascination with the case is still
strong. But instead of searching for minute traces of chemical
contamination, he sifts through records, transcripts and documents
for insights into truth and justice.
DeCheke's transformation from an analytical chemist to legal
philosopher began in the summer of 1989 when he was working at
the Graduate School's Microanalysis Laboratory and a graduate
student in the School of Public Health gave him a vial of flaky,
dry, reddish-brown, material to examine.
Unbeknownst to DeCheke, the substance was at the center of an
attempt by attorney Jan. R. Schlictmann to reopen a 1982 lawsuit
filed by eight Woburn families charging W.R. Grace & Company,
Beatrice Foods and UniFirst Corporation with contaminating public
water supplies by dumping toxic materials near city wells. The
families alleged that the toxic materials were carcinogenic and
led to the leukemia-related deaths of six children and one adult
in a nearby neighborhood.
UniFirst agreed to pay the families $1.05 million before Anne
Anderson et al. v. W.R. Grace et al. went to court in 1986. Following
a seven-month trial, W.R. Grace was found liable for polluting
the wells. A second phase of the trial was to consider whether
the pollution caused the leukemia cases, but W.R. Grace settled
with the families for a reported $8 million.
Beatrice Foods, which had owned a tannery on the Woburn site
and retained liability for the plant, was found not responsible
for any contamination by the presiding judge.
By 1988, however, Schlictmann had uncovered new evidence that
sludge had been secretly removed from the Beatrice site. Over
the trial judge's objections, the Court of Appeals ordered new
hearings, which began in 1990.
By that time, DeCheke had determined that the sample he was analyzing
- a bit of the sludge from the tannery site - was mostly animal
fat with traces of toxic solvents used in the tanning process.
According to DeCheke, the sludge sample was definitive proof that
Beatrice was responsible for contaminating the Woburn wells.
However, the judge discounted the evidence, accepting instead
testimony by a soil chemist hired by Beatrice that the sludge
was a synthetic, non-toxic resin. Ruling that there was insufficient
evidence to reopen the case, the judge effectively relegated DeCheke's
analysis to a mere footnote in the annals of the lawsuit.
That failure of scientific evidence to outweigh legal strictures
at first disillusioned DeCheke. He criticized the court system
for being "very anti-scientific."
But the intervening years have given DeCheke a new perspective,
especially for someone who grew up in communist Hungary. Since
retiring from the Uni-versity in 1995, he has immersed himself
in the Woburn case.
"Ten years is a distance," he says. "History moves on, time can
The study in his Easthampton home illustrates DeCheke's continuing
fascination with the court case. A long table is covered from
end to end with books, papers and charts related to the Woburn
During the past year, DeCheke plunged even deeper into the issue
as Harvard Law School professor Charles Nesson, who served as
co-counsel for the Woburn families, convened a symposium on the
case. Bringing many of the major players from the case together,
Nesson used the symposium as a teaching tool for his first-year
students. After DeCheke introduced himself to Nesson, he was invited
to serve as the "resident scientist" for the class.
The experience opened DeCheke's eyes to the world of the courtroom
and the intricate and often arcane rules of evidence. And the
Woburn case took on a deeper meaning.
"During this year, it became a cause," says DeCheke. "It is a
timeless message - it's not Woburn - it's an important lesson
that we can avoid future mistakes."
According to DeCheke, the true lesson of the Woburn case is that
"civil action" in the most basic sense can prevent similar tragedies
in other communities. DeCheke has come to believe that all citizens
have an obligation to participate in public policy decision-making
and change laws that work against the common good.
Recalling his 35 years in Hungary, DeCheke says, "Freedom is
not natural to me. I still discover day by day the beauty of freedom
in this country. ... In this country, we can change things, improve
things. The law is a tool for that."
The law. DeCheke savors the words and then admits that he is
"I am falling in love with the law," he says. "You can change
the law, the law is alive, it is flexible."
After taking a course in evidence procedures at Holyoke Community
College, DeCheke is well-versed in some of the legal details of
presenting cases. He is still convinced that science has an important
role to play in the courtroom, perhaps through the appointment
of scientific advisers to assist judges. And he has new perspectives
on the use of expert witnesses. He shared some of those views
this week during presentations to the Chemistry and the Law Division
of the American Chemical Society during its national meeting in
But the deeper questions of truth and justice are what really
capture DeCheke's imagination. He is adamant that the public must
safeguard the environment. It is that message that DeCheke is
spreading during public lectures, including recent talks at Connecticut
College and Vassar.
While DeCheke believes that industry can adopt environmentally
friendly practices, he says such changes will not occur unless
businesses are compelled by public pressure and the law to do
Through grassroots civil action, he tells his audiences, environmental
calamities can be averted. Using Woburn as a worst-case scenario,
DeCheke says the mistakes of the past can provide answers for
He steadfastly eschews the label of activist ("No, no, no!"),
preferring instead a local newspaper's description of him as an
"Is it environmental ethicism?" he says. "I think it is, but
environmental in a wider sense. It is a wholistic idea. Everything
is related. We cannot separate the legal from the political and