Symposium begins where A Civil Action left off

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — March 18, 1999 — Recent scientific findings about the ground-water contamination in Woburn, Mass., made famous by the book and movie, A Civil Action, will be one of the featured symposia at 34th Annual Meeting of The Geological Society of America Northeastern Section. The University of Rhode Island’s Geology Department is the primary host of the meeting, which is chaired by URI Department Chair and Professor of Geology O. Don Hermes. The meeting takes place from March 21 – 24 at the Westin Hotel in Providence, and is expected to draw more than 700 scientists and includes 40 sessions on a variety of topics. “Hydrogeologic Issues Behind A Civil Action ” takes place March 22 from 1–5 p.m. in the hotel’s Narragansett Ballroom C. The symposium will also explore environmental lessons learned during the cleanup of the site that are applicable to other parts of the country. The session is moderated by E. Scott Bair, professor of geological sciences at Ohio State University, and Charles Myette, manager of site restoration services at EMCON. The symposium is open to the public. One day registration fees are $55 general public, $35 students, $20 for K-12 teachers. This presentation is significant because “the ground-water contamination found in Woburn is not an isolated occurrence,” says Anne Veeger, Associate Professor in URI’s Geology Department. “New ground-water contamination discoveries are reported every day. In Rhode Island, for example, the public recently learned of TCE contamination in wells in Scituate. The Civil Action symposium will explore the science behind the Woburn case, including new findings and cleanup efforts.” The problem in Woburn became apparent when area residents noticed a large incidence of childhood leukemia. Over 20 years, 28 children developed leukemia and 16 died from the disease. Two wells that supplied drinking water to the city of Woburn were found to be contaminated in 1979. The Environmental Protection Agency eventually declared the area a Superfund site, in a drama now made famous by Jonathan Harr’s book on the subject. Many of the findings to be presented on Monday are new; others have not previously received attention. The symposium will include reporting and discussion about the following: The EPA is investigating three companies in addition to the five already cited for dumping toxic waste in the area (W.R. Grace & Co., UniFirst Corporation, New England Plastics Company, Wildwood Conservation Trust (Beatrice) and Hemingway Trucking (Olympia Nominee Trust). The three additional companies will be identified and discussed Monday. The ground-water problems found in the Aberjona River watershed in Woburn are the result of historic contamination of the area, some of it going back 150 years. Based on careful dating of soil and debris removed from the site, scientists have found that the area has long been used as a dumping ground. Some of the current contamination stems from waste disposal practices as far back as the late 1800s and early 1900s. Scientists have recently discovered unsafe levels (1,000 – 10,000 ppm) of the poison arsenic in the area. The source of the contamination remains unknown, but what is clear is that the arsenic has migrated well beyond the point of origin and that the potential for human exposure exists far from the designated hazardous waste sites. Scientists are now trying to determine where the arsenic might be transported, and released, in the future. Based on their remediation efforts in Woburn, scientists have discovered that ground-water contamination can extend well beyond a designated hazardous waste site, and are recommending that the entire watershed be investigated for chemical contamination. This has implications for other areas, because the Aberjona River watershed is typical of those found in urban industrialized communities. The symposium on issues related to A Civil Action is just one of the 40 scientific presentations to be made. Other highlights include: “Saving the Beach: Successes and Problems,” Monday, March 22, 7:55 a.m. – noon, Narragansett Ballroom C: This symposium is Chaired by URI Professor of Geology Jon Boothroyd, and will explore the problems of shoreline erosion, retreat, and remediation efforts. Boothroyd’s own research, based on the entire Rhode Island shoreline, shows that certain areas have eroded about 30 to 45 feet in a single year. He has also found that rising sea levels are causing a gradual shrinkage of the mainland of up to three feet per year. Symposium participants will present data from other states and explore the tradeoffs in seeking solutions—which often pit property owners against environmentalists. “Integrating Science in the Decision-Making Process: Managing Estuarine Habitats in Narragansett Bay,” Tuesday, March 23, 8:10 a.m. – noon, Providence Ballrooms: URI Associate Professor for Research at the School of Oceanography John King will present research showing that lead concentrations have decreased in Narragansett Bay. URI Department Chair and Professor of Biological Sciences Marilyn Harlin will present findings about the rapid spread of the seaweed Grateluopia doryphora, a species new to the area that was released with a Japanese ship’s bilge water, and what implications this new species may have for existing flora and fauna in Narragansett Bay. While URI’s Geology Department is the primary host for the meeting, other participating organizations include: Rhode Island Geological Survey, Wellesley College, Boston College, Lincoln Environmental, Inc. and Applied Science Associates, Inc. Contributing sponsors for the meting include AM Drilling, Environmental Drilling, Inc., Guild Drilling, GZA Environmental, Inc., Premier Laboratory, LLC, R.I. Analytical, and Sage Environmental, Inc. The Geological Society of America is the nation’s preeminent association of professional geologists. The University of Rhode Island is nationally recognized for its marine and environmental research, teaching and service efforts. Information about the entire meeting program is available on the URI website ( or at the conference registration desk at the Westin Hotel. For More Information: Anne Veeger, 401-874-2187 Ann MacDonald or Jhodi Redlich, 401-874-2116