The Watershed

On the history of economic and environmental inequality within the Mystic River Watershed and the United States more broadly. Written by Seth Meldon.

Leading up to the June 2019 grand opening of Encore Boston Harbor, neighboring residents had mixed feelings about the resort’s façade. Passersby quoted by Beth Teitell, staff writer for the Boston Globe, shared their impressions for an April 2019 story in the paper. “It’s the same color as the lamp in my grandma’s apartment,” one said. Others likened it to “old union hall brown,” “70s car brown,” and “taupe.”1

The patented ‘Wynn Bronze’ glass abuts the Boston skyline, welcoming inbound commuters on Route 93, one of the main arteries into downtown Boston.

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Skyline view of Encore and its surroundings, taken by the author in January 2020

Michael Weaver, the Chief Communications Officer for Wynn Resorts, countered with a multi-part “Well, actually…” defense of the casino’s appearance. He told Teitell that the design was, in fact, iconic enough to be a part of the LEGO Las Vegas architecture set,  that “it creates a very warm, inviting glow inside the rooms” and “offers a beautiful reflection of its surroundings at night.”

The brand’s vision for the resort was, from the onset, cloaked with altruistic motivations; new, well-paying jobs for service workers from the casino’s neighboring communities, among the most diverse and least affluent in the state. Further injections into the local economy via tourism and tax dollars. And of course, the revitalization of a former toxic waste site reviled by its neighbors for the noxious odors it gave off.

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Pre-Project Proposed View of the Casino from the Mystic River, as presented in a 2013 Wynn Resort Expanded Environmental Notification Form2

Indeed, this casino resort is built on a plot of land previously occupied by a series of chemical manufacturers, many of whom had a propensity for allowing manufacturing waste biproducts to bleed into the ground and spread into the surrounding communities. Moreover, the site does not exist in isolation — the 34 acres of surface land on which the Wynn casino is built sits adjacent to the confluence of the Mystic River watershed, the Charles River, and the Boston Harbor.

Situated just outside the ostensibly progressive beacon that is Boston, MA, the earth beneath 1 Broadway in Everett, Massachusetts serves as a comprehensive archive of industrialization’s leftovers. What follows is the origin story of some of these subsurface toxins, their ecological consequences felt throughout one of the most populated watersheds in the country, and the primary victims of the resulting environmental injustices — non-white, low income Bostonians. In this regard, this publication is too in part a defense for Weaver’s contentions — Encore Boston Harbor typifies its surroundings.

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Encore Boston Harbor in Everett, MA within the Mystic River Watershed. Adapted from Mystic River Watershed Association map of Mystic River Watershed, 2019.

The Mystic River Watershed is a distinct land area in Greater Boston. Steven Kolmes, Director of the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Portland, provides a helpful description of the significance of watershed management within developed regions—

Within any geographic region there are areas whose topography determines that they share the same stream and river drainage for precipitation running downhill towards the ocean. Such drainage basins are often referred to as watersheds. Within a watershed a number of distinctive biological communities may exist, as in the common pattern where grassy uplands give way to forested riparian zones along rivers, but these are bound together by a common flow of life's most fundamental molecule... Urban growth challenges watersheds around the world, as mega-cities place huge demands on watersheds that are no longer sufficient to meet increasing needs of growing populations... Watershed level thinking is crucial, as the consequences of alterations to one part of a watershed will inevitably reverberate throughout the rest of the watershed.3

I have organized The Watershed by both geography (north to south) and by social justice construct, as these topics are inextricably linked. The twenty-two communities that are partly or wholly a part of the watershed have remarkable variability between one another with regard to their residents’ income, race, language, and religion. These disparities align disturbingly with the ecological distinctions of the communities, as well as the expected long-term health of their residents. With the outflow of the Mystic River Watershed positioned at its southern end, the accumulation of biochemical waste is most noticeable in the cities closest to the harbor—for citizens with the fewest alternative living options available to them.

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Towns and Cities of Greater Boston4

There are avenues to work towards building a more equitable home for all residents of the Watershed. These residents include all humans, but also all other life along the Mystic River. To create a sustainable, humane future for everyone, it is critical to examine the consequences of our collective histories.

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Green Marker for Encore Casino in Everett, MA.5

Encore Boston Harbor overlooks the Mystic River, just upstream from where the river meets the Charles River on its way to the Boston Harbor. The Mystic River is the primary outflow of all water in the Mystic River Watershed — an area of approximately 76 square miles, or roughly 1% of the land area in Massachusetts.6

The watershed partially or wholly encompasses twenty-two communities north and west of Boston. Its headwaters originate primarily in the Aberjona River, which flows through the suburbs of Woburn and Winchester before reaching the Mystic Lake. The upper Mystic Lake flows into the Mystic River, which flows through Arlington, Somerville, Medford, Everett, Chelsea, Charlestown, and East Boston before discharging to Boston Harbor.7

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Map of Mystic River7

Land degradation — a decline in land quality caused by human activities — is widespread in the Mystic River Watershed. It is not possible to find a parcel of land fully undisturbed by the region’s centuries of settlement and land redevelopment. The land invariably has been tilled, landscaped, excavated, blasted, built upon, or otherwise restructured at some point in the past.

Land degradation results from mismanagement of land and thus deals with two interlocking, complex systems: the natural ecosystem and the human social system8. In The Watershed, I explore the interactions historically between these two systems within the Mystic River Watershed, while referencing various related environmental justice related events, research, politics, and regulation in the United States more broadly.


The First Law of Ecology: Everything Is Connected to Everything Else. The Second Law of Ecology: Everything Must Go Somewhere. The Third Law of Ecology: Nature Knows Best. The Fourth Law of Ecology: There Is No Such Thing as a Free Lunch

–         Barry Commoner9


Land Making

Boston’s land area includes more than 5,000 acres of man-made land — more than any other American city (except perhaps San Francisco, where the landfill hasn’t been comprehensively totaled).4 Boston’s man-made land was not the product of a single concerted effort to expand the city limits, but rather a multitude of unrelated land creation efforts over the centuries, each with its own motivations.^A

More often than not, the original fill used to create this land included contents that today would be deemed inarguably toxic to surrounding natural ecosystems. Pollutants were especially present in bodies of water known as mill ponds — manmade bodies of still water formed from building dams to reroute flowing water through a mill wheel for power. Early city ordinances would encourage, if not outright mandate that abandoned mill ponds be treated as landfills. Boston city records from as early as 1656 document the zoning of one of the city’s mill ponds as a site designated to deposit particularly noxious refuse, such as ‘beast entrails’ disposed of by butchers —

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 Retrieved from Documents of the City of Boston,187810 

This was a standard practice in the developing city. National Geographic tells the story of Greater Boston’s largest mill pond, near what is today Haymarket Square—

In the 1640s, a group of businessmen got permission from the city to build a dam across the mouth of a cove on the northern end of the peninsula, so that they could use the tides to power some flour mills. The dam formed what was known as Mill Pond, and the mills were up and running by the end of the decade. But they were never very productive, and the whole operation was sold off to another group by the end of the 18th century.

 The new mill owners closed the floodgates on the west end of the dam, which reduced flow along the banks of Mill Pond. Consequently, sewage, garbage, and the rotting corpses of discarded animals began to accumulate along the shore. It’s unclear whether letting the filth build up was part of their plan, but the new owners soon began lobbying the city to let them fill in the pond and sell off the land.5

Indeed, for many of these projects, little mind was paid to the quality of the fill itself. The land from this dam today helps support the traffic along Causeway Street, and the land on the site of the former pond itself would at the time be known as Bullfinch Triangle. A new building was promptly constructed on the filled land to house the delightfully titled organization, The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel among the Indians6

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Highlighted triangle marking Bullfinch Triangle added to 1891 map of Boston11

Independent of the environmental consequences, the man-made land quickly proved to be ill suited for urban infrastructure. The first ‘made’ land involved dumping sand and gravel on top of Boston’s mud flats, quickly leading to the realization that heavy structures could not be constructed on top of it.

By the turn of the 20th century, city planners had adopted a new strategy for building on the loosely packed land. Laborers would drive wood pilings — essentially vertical logs about the size of telephone poles — through the filled land and underlying organic silt layer (the original mud flats), 15 to 20 feet below existing ground surface12.

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The estimated 1630 Boston shoreline, overlying a 1999 satellite map of Boston and surrounding areas12,13

The wood-piling method of building on top of wetlands introduced new problems for the city as it grew. While the method can be structurally reliable for centuries if left undisturbed, it requires that the groundwater level at no point dips below the tops of the wood pilings. Wood rots at a much slower rate when submerged in environments low in oxygen, and groundwater has markedly lower oxygen levels than water on the surface. As long as the groundwater level never dipped below the tops of the submerged wood pilings, the pilings could theoretically remain sturdy for generations14.

Unfortunately, like most cities, much of Boston’s infrastructure has been built out beneath the ground water level (subways, sewers, tunnels, etc.). When any of these structures are punctured, such as a tunnel springing a leak, the groundwater will drain into it — exposing the submerged pilings to air. The most well-publicized examples of this occurred as a result of the nation’s most expensive highway project ever, Boston’s Big Dig. While the Big Dig is a topic outside of the scope of The Watershed, infrastructure projects like it are one contributing factor to land degradation in the Mystic River Watershed.

This environmental deterioration likely has increased the impacts felt from chemical pollution in the region.


Biochemical Innovation

Boston pioneered and remains today a hub of innovation for the chemical and biotechnology industry. Throughout much of the history of the biotechnology sector’s evolution, regulation has lagged well behind innovation. This is perhaps most evident with respect to regulating manufacturing processes in order to minimize the creation of toxic byproducts. Glenn Nedwin, an accomplished biochemist and co-editor in chief of the journal Industrial Biotechnology, described the challenges presented by early innovations in the biochemical industry at a 1997 conference—

Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the 1700s, industry has not consistently paid attention to the environmental impact of its operations. This inconsistency has grossly intensified since the early 1900s due to a number of complicating factors, including competition driven by capitalism, technological advancements and the need to sustain an increasingly rapid growth in population. Today we are faced with an inordinate number of toxic waste sites due to industrial carelessness and little attention has been paid to energy and resource efficiency.

Historically, most known synthetic reactions were developed primarily on the basis of product yield, with little or no regard for the toxic nature of the starting materials, catalysts, solvents, reagents, byproducts, or impurities. Further, in many instances there was an incomplete technical understanding of the process, no stated set of emissions or waste parameters for operating, lack of detection systems, and in some cases, instances where arrogance, neglect, and greed took over.15

The class structures of each of the Mystic River Watershed’s communities have evolved over the past 200 years, with residents of the cities closer to the harbor today typically experiencing greater levels of economic hardship. Throughout this period, the watershed has withstood a tremendous degree of ecological destruction, amassing an accumulation of hazardous industrial chemical waste deposits spanning generations.

 As will become evident in the subsequent chapters, the combination of land degradation and toxic runoff has come to define the racial disproportionality of these communities.


Extensive information about the making of Boston can be found in Michael Rawson’s Eden on the Charles.

 

 

It took many fights and a multitude of twentieth-century environmental disasters for the United States’ present-day environmental protections to be enacted. A commonality across these environmental disasters is that residents of the communities impacted by the disasters had to collectively organize to hold polluters accountable and demand regulatory reform. Fighting through the health ailments caused by those same environmental disasters, residents of these communities helped create a public outcry strong enough that regulatory bodies were made to hold guilty corporate actors accountable.*

These crises would eventually lead to the enactment of major environmental regulatory reforms, most notably the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act in 1980 (CERCLA, also known as the Superfund Program). CERCLA allows the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to craft a master plan to restore a ‘Superfund site’ for pollution sites that exceed minimum thresholds defined in the agency’s Hazard Ranking System (HRS). The HRS is a model in which various characteristics of the site, its wastes, and its surrounding environment are combined through use of a numerical algorithm to compute an overall score.16

Sites that qualify as Superfund sites are placed on the National Priority List (NPL), a designation that initiates a judgement by the EPA of the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs) who must bear some or all of the costs of that cleanup.17 As of this writing in June, 2020, there are 1,335 sites actively with this designation across the United States, 31 in Massachusetts.

Among the most impactful — and disturbing — of the environmental disasters that caused these reforms was the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Rivers, New York. It created a moral panic that reverberated nationwide, one which served as a case study for the city of Woburn, which faced its own environmental crisis in the same time period.

The Love Canal Disaster

In 1892, William Love received a permit to excavate the Love Canal, blueprinted to stretch perpendicularly from the upper to lower Niagara Rivers. At the time, canals were thought to be a future mainstay for energy creation, and the Love Canal was blueprinted as a major source of hydroelectric energy for a planned housing development. William Love would only make it as far as digging a mile-long trench before abandoning the project in 1910 for lack of funding.

The canal bed was next used as a dumpsite for both municipal and industrial chemical wastes, until the land was purchased in 1947 by Hooker Chemical, a since-shuttered subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. With the government’s authorization, Hooker alone began using the partially dug canal as a dump site for chemical wastes produced from their manufacturing processes.18 By 1953, the canal was completely filled back in with 20,000 tons of chemical waste. The following decades would bring horror to the residents of Niagara Falls, New York, both bureaucratically and epidemiologically.

1953 — City developers begin building new residences in the growing surrounding community. The Niagara Falls Board of Education, searching for land to build a new school on, sets their sights on the Love Canal land. Hooker volunteered the site for the bargain basement price of $1.00 (just over $9.50 in 2020 dollars) — provided that the new deedholders sign off on a liability waiver which removed Hooker’s responsibility for any potential injury or death stemming from buried chemical wastes. The Board signed off.

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Section of Bill of Sale and Transfer of Property Deed between the Hooker Electrochemical Company and the Board of Education of Niagara Falls, New York, April 28, 1953

Over the next two decades, residents would increasingly report strange odors near the school playground, accumulations of black sludge bleeding through basement walls of the residences along the former Love Canal, and children playing on the school’s playground having sneezing fits and watering eyes. Among these reports—

·         1974 — A couple reports that when they were excavating their backyard for a new pool, the hole they dug immediately filled with rancid blue and yellow liquids. These same chemicals had mixed with the groundwater and flooded the entire yard, reacting so destructively to the redwood posts that one day the fence simply collapsed. When the chemicals receded in the dry weather, the gardens and shrubs looked as though they had been withered and scorched by a brush fire.19

·         March 1978 — The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) opens an investigation, first collecting air and soil tests in basements and then conducting a health study of the 239 families living in residences directly encircling the canal. They find an increase in reproductive problems among women and high levels of chemical contaminants in soil and air20.

·         August 1978 — Children living in these homes start to fall ill at an alarmingly frequent rate. Parents organize, demanding that the NYSDOH take action to protect them. The Department ultimately agrees to conduct a more comprehensive investigation, which shows that the contents of the filled-in canal at that point contained over 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, including at least twelve known carcinogens.21  Among the slurry of carcinogenic chemicals found at the site were benzene, lindane, and trichlorophenol (TCP). But the several hundred pounds of TCP buried in the ground was itself contaminated with Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin or Dioxin for short, known more commonly as Agent Orange — one of the deadliest substances known to man.22

·         December 11, 1978 — Seeing that six construction workers are working on a new development near the Love Canal site, residents organize and form an informational picket to warn the workers of the dangers of exposure to Dioxin. Six picketers are arrested for disorderly conduct.

·         December 12, 1978 — Several of the aforementioned construction workers are hospitalized for mysterious body rashes.

·         August 1979 — Residents begin to leave the neighborhood, citing severe chemical fumes in the area. NYSDOH is mandated to pay food and lodging for 48 hours for families if any family member’s illness was believed causally linked to remedial construction.

·         May, 1980 — State University of Buffalo neurologist says some Love Canal residents may have irreversible nerve damage. Frustrated Love Canal residents, upset by the reports, take two EPA officials hostage in the Love Canal Homeowners Association office and hold them for five hours while demanding evacuation of the entire Love Canal neighborhood.23

·         July, 1982 — State announces high dioxin levels at the canal. EPA soon confirms that the chemical is present in concentrations 100,000 times that found toxic to laboratory animals.23

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An abandoned home bordering the Love Canal site in 1987.7

This environmental disaster had devastating consequences, affecting all aspects of victims’ lives. In 1983 Occidental Chemical, which had bought Hooker, settled $15 billion in claims that had been filed by 1,336 Love Canal residents. It distributed a paltry $20 million lump sum with a $1 million lifetime medical trust to be split by the residents—meaning an average victim received a settlement of $14,250.23

Even if the settlement had been considered acceptable to some victims, they had no way of knowing at the time what the long-term health effects of chronic exposure to carcinogenic chemicals would be.

A 1993 report co-authored by scientists at the Yale University School of Medicine and the New York State Department of Health documented the long-term effects upon residents living near Love Canal and other toxic waste sites.24 Among the 27,000 births by mothers living within 1 mile of New York’s 590 toxic waste sites studied, there was a 12-percent greater chance of giving birth to a child with a major birth defect relative to women living farther from such a site.

90 of the 590 sites were considered to be high-risk locations because there was documented evidence that chemicals had migrated off-site.25 When just these sites were examined, the risk factor soared; women living within one mile of one of these sites were found to have a 63-percent greater chance of bearing a child with a major birth defect relative to women living farther from such a site.

These findings motivated 900 residents to file a follow up suit against Occidental, which resulted in a settlement ranging between $63 to $133,000 in personal injury damages for the victims.23

The disaster served as a case study, though, for communities across the country where residents suspected environmental contamination. Knowledge of the Love Canal case was paramount to the investigations that took place in Woburn, MA just a few years later.


  • While this topic is explored throughout The Watershed, exemplary examples of scholarship in environmental justice advocacy include No Safe Place (Brown and Mikkelson), Toxic Communities (Taylor), Water, Place and Equity (Whitely, Ingram, and Perry), Toxic Nation: The Fight to Save Our Communities from Chemical Contamination (Setterberg and Shavelson)

 

There is a broad counterreformation against health, safety, and environmental regulation. In this insurgent view, most of these matters can efficiently be left to market forces after all, if government will just get out of the way. The fact some concerns about resource shortages were overstated has been used to impeach the need for environmental regulation generally.

~Robert Kuttner, Everything for Sale

The Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) program at the National Institutes of Health tracks cancer statistics among the U.S. population. Their historical data shows that in 1975 there was an observed rate of 3 new cases — diagnoses, not deaths — of leukemia per 100,000 Americans that were under the age of 20 years old.26 Between 1969 and 1981, Woburn’s population ranged from 36,000 to 38,000.

In that time, twenty-eight Woburn children were diagnosed with leukemia. Sixteen died.

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Water bodies and Superfund sites in Woburn, MA 27

The quality of Woburn’s municipal water supply had throughout the twentieth century been the subject of residents’ complaints, made to an array of state and local regulatory bodies. But it was not until popular organizing and advocacy by the victims’ families created the media spotlight needed that regulators began to address the water contamination.

In Paula Diperna’s 1985 book Cluster Mystery, a comprehensive account of the cluster of child leukemia diagnoses and deaths in Woburn, MA, she shared accounts from residents who had grown up in the Boston suburb in the 1950s and 1960s. Some of the residents who had lived near an inlet of the Aberjona River, Hall’s Brook, recounted their experience with the water. One resident described one of the children’s delightful pastimes—throwing ‘mudpacks’ at each other. These chunks of mud along the brook would later prove to be earth, congealed together by chemical residue. 28

Origins of a Mill Town’s Toxic Residue

In 1803, the Middlesex Canal was officially opened, dug over the preceding decade to connect the Merrimac River with Boston Harbor. In the decades that followed, the canal facilitated rapid growth of several profitable industries in Woburn — leather, shoemaking, and dyes. Mills along the Aberjona River would power the factories producing these goods.

From 1827 to 1893, much of the area surrounding Horn Pond was used by the Dow Tannery, the largest leather tannery in the city, at a time when Woburn was one of the leading leather-producing cities in all of the country.29 In her book Woburn: Hidden Tales of a Tannery Town, Marie Coady retells the story of the tannery—

For a time, the tanning of leather implemented natural products such as the bark of trees, plants, etc., but as Woburn became a leading leather producer in the United States and offered much-needed employment, owners began looking for faster and more efficient ways to tan leather. That led to the use of chemical techniques that employed chromium, lead, copper and zinc amalgams that turned the liquor pits into a source of contamination that impacted not only the citizens of Woburn but everyone downstream…As the tannery grew and the techniques of tanning became more volatile, the refuse dumped into Horn Pond became more than anyone bargained for.

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Boston Globe, March 9, 1895, page 6

Woburn residents were falling ill due to the chemical biproducts produced by the very industry that was primarily responsible for the city’s growing prosperity. Coady continues on to document a letter to the editor in the Woburn City Press, published in 1889—

Would it not be wise to take the warning before it is too late, that your children and future generations may not point to you in condemnation, not only because you have allowed such beauty to be despoiled, but because you have allowed it to be polluted into a breeding place of miasma and disease? 29

Mercifully, on April 29th, 1893, the Dow Tannery burst into flames. Residents’ efforts to extinguish the flames were futile—

In the end, the Stephen A. Dow tannery was so badly damaged that it was decided that they would not rebuild. Instead, the very next day they leased the Maxwell tannery in North Winchester and picked up where they left off, making sure their employees were not out of work even one day. For years, the charred ruins of the Dow tannery continued to blight the neighborhood until it finally came under the control of the Metropolitan Parks Commission. The commission, with a great deal of urging from the city, demolished the tannery to make way for the new Woburn Parkway, which opened in August of 1914. But from what I’ve been told by people who lived through that transformation, most of the tannery still exists under the few layers of soil that were used to cover the debris.29


Meanwhile, Woburn’s chemical and dye manufacturing industries were substantially picking up production throughout the second industrial revolution. Woburn Chemical Works, later renamed Merrimac Chemical Company, opened in 1853.30 From 1853 to 1931, Merrimac Chemical and other manufacturers of arsenic-based insecticides, sulfuric acid, phenols, TNT, and chemicals for the leather-tanning industry occupied this area of Woburn.31 Between 1899 and 1914, the Merrimac Chemical Company had grown to become the largest producer of arsenic-based pesticides in the country.⁵

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Rear view of the Merrimac Chemical Company 32

The careless disposal by Merrimac Chemical of the wastes from their manufacturing processes gravely impacted surrounding communities. Scientists have estimated that from 1888 to 1929, between 200 and 900 metric tons of arsenic were released into the surrounding ecosystem as a result of pesticide and sulfuric acid manufacturing activities, with approximately 13 metric tons traveling down the Aberjona River to the Mystic Lakes.32

Both residents and regulators were cognizant there was ecological harm being done, but investigations were disjointed. An 1895 examination by the Massachusetts State Board of Health reported that a major source of the town’s public water supply, Horn Pond, was seriously polluted by the tannery and other manufacturing establishments. A follow-up investigation in 1903 reported that the filtration of the water from Horn Pond was becoming less thorough, as shown by the increase in free-flowing ammonia and iron.

By 1906, the Board of Health warned that Horn Pond Brook and its tributaries in Woburn were the “most seriously polluted stream in the water-shed of the Mystic River above Upper Mystic Lake, wastes that entered streams that ran beneath factories or through factory yards as well as by human wastes.”30

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Horn Pond Pumping Station, Woburn, MA 1909 33

In contrast to these observations from the Board, the town’s electric company, the Edison Electric Illuminating Company published a charming brochure about the town in 1909, positing —

The City Water Works supply drinking water of excellent quality. This comes partly from supplementary wells; but mainly from a filter gallery near Horn Pond, a beautiful sheet of water which besides serving its useful purpose is one of the scenic attractions of Woburn. The water is pumped both directly and to a reservoir on Horn Pond Mountain. The supply is always plentiful and there is ample pressure while the thorough distributing system and the more than fifty-seven miles of mains in use make the water generally available…

Various opportunities for outdoor recreation are presented in Woburn. The head waters of the Mystic River are in Woburn, and various ponds or lakes add diversity to the scenery. Horn Pond Mountain and other elevations afford charming views. The vicinity of Horn Pond is attractive while the pond itself is regarded as the best lake for canoeing in Eastern Massachusetts.33


By 1900, Merrimac Chemical had built facilities across more than 400 acres and was one of the largest producers of chemicals in New England.

On Sept. 7, 1923, the MSBH wrote the Woburn Board of Health warning that Horn Pond was “a most objectionable source from which to take water for water supply purposes.”

One resident turned to the Massachusetts House Ways and Means Committee, writing the committee in a letter that, between July and September 1924 —

The City of Woburn had no water fit for human consumption…some chemicals were put into the water to kill the bacteria, which was the cause of much sickness. The more a person drank of the water, the thirstier he would get, so that a person ’s energy was greatly reduced.30

Dependence upon Horn Pond water, however, continued with as much as half of the total amount of the public’s water supply being pumped directly from the pond.

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The Boston Globe, Sunday, October 14, 1923

In its 1928 catalog, the Merrimac Chemical Company noted that it deliberately accumulated piles of industrial wastes, with the expectation that a use for the by-product would eventually be discovered. It identified these by-product materials as calcium sulphate, oxide of iron, pyrites cinder, sulphate of lead, calcium carbonate, bauxite waste mud, and “others.”30


Chemical Revolution

In 1929, Merrimac Chemical was acquired by the Monsanto chemical company. Monsanto maintained the day-to-day operations of Merrimac as one of its divisions until 1934. Among the chemicals Merrimac manufactured pre- and post-acquisition were phenol, benzene, trinitrotoluol (TNT), picric acid, toluene, and sulfuric acid. Then from 1927 to 1968, the site was used to manufacture glue and grease from tanned animal hides.31

By the late 1930s, industrial wastes at the site were piling up—filling lowlands, wetlands, and ponds. These wastes mixed frequently with the municipal sewage that frequently overflowed from the town’s inadequate sewage system.30

After changing hands several more times during these years, the manufacturing complex would ultimately be sold by Stauffer Chemical Companies to a commercial developer, the Mark Phillip Trust (MPT), in 1969.


In the latter part of 1964, Woburn’s Department of Public works activated a new municipal well—”well G,” followed by “well H” in the first half of 1967. Not long after, residents of the neighborhoods served by these wells began reporting strong chemical tastes in their tap water. The water was not even suitable for laundry, as it would ruin the clothing it came in contact with.


In 1965, the town opened a new landfill in a swampy area that drained into a ditch at the northern edge of the Aberjona aquifer. Years later, the mayor of Woburn at the time admitted that the landfill was “never run properly because we dumped into brooks. It should have never been put there because it was in the middle of a wetlands area.”30


In late August 1969, a group of East Woburn residents presented the Mayor with a petition protesting the quality of their water. He agreed to close wells G and H by October 1, but they were reactivated by the following spring due to limits in supply.

Both wells would, over the ensuing decade, follow the cycle of being decommissioned due to taste and quality complaints, only to be recommissioned shortly thereafter due to supply shortages.30


Meanwhile in 1970, at the site formerly owned by Merrimac Chemical, then by Monsanto, then by Stauffer Chemical Companies, the Mark Phillip Trust initiated plans to build an industrial park called IndustriPlex 128, named after nearby route 128. The IndustriPlex site was located just north of G and H.

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Contaminated Wells and Nearby Industrial Contamination Sites 34

As the MPT excavated the land, they extracted buried animal glue manufacturing wastes, which released a very strong and pervasive “rotten egg” odor. Despite repeated citizen complaints and notices of violations issued by the Massachusetts Department of Quality Engineering (MDQE), the MPT continued its development of the site.35 In doing so, pockets of stockpiled wastes leached into nearby soils, ponds, and wetlands, while hydrogen sulfide gases entered into the atmosphere.36

After repeated violations of the DEQE’s administrative orders, the Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General filed suit against the MPT on behalf of the DEQE. In 1977, the Superior Court issued an order prohibiting the MPT from disturbing two small parcels of land where the bulk of the remaining glue manufacturing wastes were believed to be buried.36 The order did not address the substantial odor and runoff produced by animal wastes that the MPT had already excavated and stockpiled.35


Residents in the section of Woburn served by wells G and H were growing increasingly uneasy, but not simply from their concerns with the smell of their tap water, or the fact it would stain their clothing. During the summer of 1979, nationwide publicity about the Love Canal toxic waste dump coincided with extensive local publicity about possible environmental hazards in Woburn, causing some local residents to wonder if the town's cancer rates there were higher than average—in the ten years between 1969 and 1979, the town saw twelve diagnoses of child leukemia.37

At the urging of a Woburn doctor, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (MDPH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) conducted an investigation which confirmed a significantly elevated incidence of childhood leukemia in Woburn. Twelve cases were observed in the town, where 5.3 cases were expected in the ten-year stretch. Nine of the twelve children diagnosed had acute lymphocytic leukemia, and all cases were diagnosed before the patients reached 15 years of age.38

Furthermore, at the time of diagnosis, the leukemia cases were concentrated in the eastern part of Woburn, just north of Walker Pond. Six of the victims lived within the borders of census tract 3334, in an area approximately a half-mile in radius. The CDC report documented that the expected probability that 6 or more of the town’s 12 cases would occur in this area, which contained only 17% of the town's population in the 1- to 14-year-old age group was less than 0.01%. The six cases in this census tract were 7.5 times higher than expected.

Childhood leukemia incidence for the rest of Woburn was not significantly elevated.38

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Residences of Childhood Leukemia Patients at Time of Diagnosis in Woburn, Massachusetts from 1969 to 1979 38

The findings only validated what had by then become clear to Woburn residents—something within their surrounding environment was contributing to—if not outright causing— the tragic losses of children in the community to specific kinds of leukemia.

Anne Anderson, a Woburn resident whose son Jimmy’s short life was spent battling the leukemia until he succumbed to it at age 12, was among the first to suspect the correlation—a suspicion that was met for years with broad skepticism until the evidence was indisputable. When asked about the ordeal for a 2004 report to the EPA about the Woburn disaster, Anderson was quoted—

From the time we moved here, the water was bad in the summer. It had an unpleasant odor and a terrible taste. My mother brought jars of MDC water when she came to visit. The kids used to always ask for ‘Nana water.’ It was like a mother’s milk, for God’s sake. She still brings it when she visits.


After the CDC report was released, Anne Anderson and other residents formed a community advocacy group they called For a Cleaner Environment (FACE). Anderson alone could not have forced the state government to take further action; community organizing was critical to advancing their critical situation onto the national media’s radar.

A 1981 study entitled Woburn: Cancer Incidence and Environmental Hazards 1969-1978 by the CDC and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health confirmed the presence of elevated levels of kidney cancer and childhood leukemia in Woburn. But the study’s Conclusions section led with the following two paragraphs—

The information gathered thus far fails to provide evidence establishing an association between environmental hazards and the increased incidence of childhood leukemia and renal cancer in Woburn. Interviews with parents of leukemia cases, two groups of matched controls, and family members of renal and liver cancer cases revealed no associations between environmental factors and the disease.

The investigation has established that the overall incidence of childhood leukemia was significantly elevated in Woburn and that there was a significant concentration of cases in one particular area of east Woburn. The hypothesis suggesting that the increase in leukemia incidence was associated with environmental hazards in Woburn, and specifically with the contamination of drinking water supplies, is neither supported nor refuted by the study findings.39

The study concluded nothing, as the study’s data for 1969-1978 was compared with the data from the years prior to 1969, which did not exist. (Notably, the American Cancer Society still categorizes chemical contamination of groundwater as an “Uncertain, unproven, or controversial risk factor” for childhood leukemia.)

The affirmation of the injury inflicted upon the residents accompanied by the state’s inaction fueled FACE’s community organizing. Seven months after their initial meeting, FACE convened a group of state and federal agency representatives to discuss the plight of Woburn residents. At that meeting, the EPA agreed to investigate the wells.40


While the extent of the public health crisis was being determined by federal, state, and local health department investigations, environmental regulators faced the formidable task of testing the soil throughout the town for a multitude of contaminants, and then tracing their source(s). The undertaking would only grow more challenging, as their investigations uncovered several more toxic waste sites in Woburn.

On May 4, 1979, in a vacant lot next to the Aberjona River, construction workers found 184 abandoned polyurethane barrels containing unknown substances near the newly constructed IndustriPlex, and reported this to the MDPH. The department’s director, Richard Chalpin, fully aware of the Love Canal disaster, knew immediately to be concerned about the nearby groundwater. He called for testing of the nearby public drinking supply wells, which revealed the presence of toxic metals including arsenic, lead and chromium.

The DEQE, who had been trying to shut down the construction of the IndustriPlex, began to test water from the wells as well. On May 22, they informed the Woburn Board of Water that analyses of water samples from wells G and H indicated “the presence of trichloroethylene (TCE) concentrations of 117.6 parts per billion in the sample from well H and 267.4 parts per billion in a sample collected from well G respective.”30 At time of this writing, the EPA’s maximum allowable level of TCE in drinking water is 5 parts per billion.41 It is considered a carcinogen by all routes of exposure.42

The contamination of the water in these wells G and H, though, did not solely originate from the businesses located in their immediate vicinity.

In July 1979, EPA field investigators discovered an abandoned lagoon, spanning nearly an acre in surface area with depths of up to 5 feet. Within it was a slurry of toxic materials including lead and arsenic, the latter in concentrations as high as 1,050 parts per million. The investigators estimated that these materials had been deposited into the ground by manufacturers between 1899 and 1915.38

These chemical deposits were unrelated to the already documented pits of buried animal hides and slaughterhouse wastes that were discovered earlier that summer.

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The Virgin Islands Daily News, 1980

The EPA identified the MPT and a group of 25 other businesses as being partially responsible for the ecological damage to the area around the IndustriPlex. The businesses, collectively called the Site Settling Defendants, entered into Consent Decrees with the EPA. Consent decrees under the Superfund act constitute a judgment that binds the parties who sign the decree, but are not an admission of liability.43

Citing the inability to generate sufficient capital, the MPT was the sole party not to have complied with the conditions of the Consent Decrees.35,36

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Source: For a Cleaner Environment (FACE, 1986)36

Living near environmental waste sites has measurably grave consequences, shown in longitudinal studies of the residents of Woburn, Niagara Falls, and communities that have faced similar levels of environmental contamination.

There are countless challenges faced by victims of these communities in holding polluters accountable, but also consider that it is far easier to document changes to the health of those who are already born than to prenatal victims.

There is significant research into how genetic development of the human body is impacted depending on where the mother lives. No organism, including humans, has a destiny independent of its environment, writes Dan Agin, professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Chicago in his 2010 book, More than Genes. Agin details the findings of one such study—

In 2003, researchers reported a study of 48,197 mothers and their 59,397 children. The children were followed until age 7, and the group included 623 twin pairs. The report concluded that in poor families nearly all the variance in IQ is accounted for by a combination of effects in both the prenatal and post-natal environments, and that the contribution of genes to IQ variance in such families is close to zero. In contrast, in affluent families, the result is almost the reverse. The implication is that among poor children genetic differences contribute almost nothing to the measured variance of IQ because environmental damage, both prenatal and postnatal, overwhelms all other variables in accounting for IQ variation.

In contrast, in the middle and upper classes, in which prenatal and postnatal damage to the nervous system is much reduced and hardly variable from one family to the next, genetic differences account for most of the variation in IQ. In plain language, for middle- and upper-class children, differences in IQ can be explained mostly by genetic differences, while in lower class children, differences in IQ are explained mostly by nongenetic differences (prenatal and postnatal environments).44

Furthermore, one’s mere proximity to hazardous waste sites presents myriad routes of exposure to the human body. A growing body of evidence suggests that there is a measured impact that one’s housing and neighborhood has on their health outcomes, some exacerbated by whether one is able to afford amenities such as air conditioners to filter air particulates.45-52

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Adverse Pregnancy Outcomes in Areas of High and Low Exposure before (1977-1979) and after (1980-1982) Closure of Wells G and H 34,53


Causal Indeterminacy

By the time the victims of the water contamination had been able to put together a plausible case, the defendants were too numerous for any one party to be proven responsible, and many guilty parties had long since departed.

Eight families organized to file a class action lawsuit in 1982 against the owners of the land from which the majority of the municipal well contamination had originated. Children in seven of the eight families had contracted leukemia, the eighth lost her husband to it. Five of the children died from leukemia or complications of having leukemia. The spouse of one plaintiff contracted acute myelocytic leukemia and died.

While the court case proceeded, FACE continued its advocacy and held numerous public meetings to mobilize community leaders and local residents.40 One member interviewed for Brown and Mikkelson’s No Safe Place stated—

[FACE] accomplished an awful lot, and it has given credibility to this kind of problem. And it has given people courage to stand up and make noise about something that they think is wrong in their community, and get attention.34

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Source: Harvard University54

The defendants were W.R. Grace & Co., UniFirst Corporation, and Beatrice Foods, Inc.¹² Journalist Dan Kennedy reported on the case throughout its proceedings, often critical of the families’ counsel, Jan Schlichtmann. In 1998, he outlined Schlichtmann’s reasoning for naming the defendants—

Grace owned a plant that manufactured food-packaging equipment under the Cryovac brand name, and used TCE to clean tools and thin paint…Beatrice purchased the John J. Riley Company tannery — and Riley’s legal liability — just a few months before the wells were shut down. A 15-acre undeveloped property adjacent to and owned by the tannery was heavily contaminated, and Schlichtmann tried — with little success — to show that the tannery itself (and thus Beatrice) was responsible. UniFirst operated a dry-cleaning plant that used PCE.55

Despite it being a civil case — meaning the victims would only need to show the jury that the majority of the evidence pointed to the defendant being liable — the lawsuit faced significant hurdles and in the eyes of some, a suspiciously adversarial judge in Walter Skinner.

For the first five months of the trial, the Woburn families would be forbidden from making any public comment due to a gag order placed on them by Judge Skinner. He ultimately lifted the order only after complaints from the Massachusetts Civil Liberties Union were publicized in the media.34

Due to the Skinner’s decision to bifurcate the lawsuit, the residents’ legal team would first need to show the jury that the defendants’ properties were the likely origin point of the toxic chemical that had contaminated the two wells. If successful, they would then need to show that the children’s deaths from leukemia were attributable to the contamination.32 Finally, that injury would need to be assigned some dollar value in damages. Crucially, this meant that for the proceedings to even reach the portion of the trial focused on damages to the residents’ health, the plaintiffs would first need to demonstrate the defendants’ culpability.

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Woburn Daily Times Chronicle, 198656

Years later in 2009, author Paul Kix wrote for Boston magazine about the challenges presented to Schlictmann by the judge and the opposing counsel—

Jerome Facher, a senior partner at the Boston law firm Hale and Dorr and a lecturer at Harvard Law School, convinced Judge Walter Skinner to break the immensely complicated trial into two parts. Officially, it was Skinner’s decision; such was the case’s complexity, he reasoned. But the bifurcation benefited Facher and the defense attorneys for W. R. Grace in two ways.

First, it gave the defense teams two trials, which put an added burden of proof on Schlichtmann. The first phase of the trial would test the scientific validity of the plaintiffs’ claims. Were the tannery and W. R. Grace responsible for the wells’ contamination? If the jury believed that, the case would move on to the next question: Were the chemicals in the water responsible for giving the children cancer?

Second, delaying the medical portion meant Schlichtmann couldn’t put the Woburn families on the stand until the trial’s latter phase. Their tragic losses were his most compelling pieces of evidence. And now, if he wasn’t successful in the first phase, the families wouldn’t take the stand at all.

Facher worked to ensure that. The trial opened in March 1986 and lasted until late July—79 days of testimony, evidence, and Facher’s objections and ruthless cross-examinations. Already Facher had succeeded in taking a case about dying children and turning it into one of soil samples and river flow, with academics making competing, esoteric claims.57

The lawsuit went poorly for the plaintiffs by virtually any measure, though in retrospect there were likely few winning strategies.

Consider the evidence required to show that the environmental wastes, deposited by a multitude of parties, had more likely than not caused the children’s leukemia. Legal scholar Robert Blomquist wrote about the case for the Cornell Law Review in May 1996, documenting the challenges presented by the case having had both an ‘indeterminate plaintiff’ and an ‘indeterminate defendant.’

One of Jan Schlichtmann's principal problems in litigating the Woburn case was identifying all of the “victims,” and potential tort plaintiffs, of the hazardous waste groundwater contamination out of Woburn's total population of 36,000… Perhaps the genetic background of the children had initiated the leukemias. Maybe health habits (such as the quality of diet, exercise and medical care)had triggered the disease in some of the children. It was also conceivable that some or all of the Woburn leukemia cases had been caused by other environmental exposures such as toxins in the air or suspected carcinogens in common household products, unrelated to the elevated levels of chemicals found in the east Woburn groundwater. Similarly, because of the latent and chronic quality of many toxic injuries, Schlichtmann could not be sure that everyone actually harmed by the contaminated well water knew that they had, in fact, been harmed…

In addition to the problem of indeterminate plaintiffs, another of Jan Schlichtmann's principal problems in litigating the Woburn case was the indeterminate defendants problem. As Schlichtmann asked himself at the beginning of his involvement in the case: “Whose chemicals had polluted the wells? Who had dumped these chemicals, and when had they gotten into the water supply? Had they in fact caused leukemia?”58

Prior to the trial, Schlichtmann and UniFirst settled out of court for $1.05 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.59

In 1986, after nine days of deliberation, the jury found W.R. Grace liable for contaminating wells G and H. Judge Skinner proceeded to throw out their verdict, though, on the grounds that he found some of their answers to the questions about the hydrogeological data to be confusing. Those questions they had been asked were asked by Judge Skinner himself, questions he would also later dismiss as overly confusingly worded.34

W. R. Grace ultimately settled with the families for $8 million, without having to admit responsibility for the contamination. Most of the money went toward legal fees. After years of turmoil, each family received less than $300,000 from the settlement.

I thought more positive things were going to come of it. In retrospect I guess that Grace really didn't have anything to lose, or hasn't lost much at all, even monetarily, or in any way, I guess. But when we settled, that wasn't necessarily the case, but as I get further away from it, I don't think that they really suffered much at all.

-Woburn mother after W.R. Grace settlement 34


The dollar amount of these settlements, while uninspiring, are illustrative of a broader set of challenges faced by the plaintiffs of environmental crimes. Economics scholar Harold Barnett documented these challenges in his book Toxic Debts and the Superfund Dilemma:

1. Some state statutes of limitations for tort actions begin to run at the time of defendant’s tortious act. These traditional periods are often violated by the time required for toxic waste leakage and migration, for exposure to contaminated surface or ground water supplies, for the onset of an injury such as cancer with long latency periods, and for awareness of the relationship between exposure and injury.

2. While several tort law principles such as strict liability, negligence, trespass, and nuisance are available in theory, the fact that the plaintiff may be indeterminate renders them inapplicable. We may know that a group of people has a specific type of cancer and that some of them contracted that cancer from exposure to the defendant’s waste; however, we will not know which individuals in that group were affected by the waste.

3. A defendant will be held liable if it is proven to be more likely than not that the defendant’s action caused the plaintiff’s injury. A plaintiff, however, typically can show only a causal link between exposure to a toxic substance and an injury. Further, medical and epidemiological evidence linking contamination to injury in a statistical sense may be excluded by evidentiary rules. Causal indeterminacy imposes great difficulties on the party with the burden of proof. High transaction costs combine with the uncertainty of eventual recovery to discourage many victims from suing and to encourage many who do sue to accept settlements which do not reflect the merits of their claim.60


If no organism exists nor forms independent of their environment, and proximity to toxic waste sites has a measured impact on one’s health outcomes, then a system in which some humans are left with no alternative but to live close to contamination sites would seem to most observers as distinctly unequal.

This makes FACE a particularly valuable case study of community advocacy for environmental justice, as their organizing had convinced not just Woburn residents but casual to onlookers to demand government action. In their book No Safe Place about the incident, Phil Brown and Edwin Mikkelson write—

Organizing a community contaminated by toxic wastes is extremely difficult and full of contradictions. The victims and their families, already suffering physical and emotional pain, must relive painful memories as they delve into the causes of their trouble… The Woburn community organized on a different pattern from most other toxic waste sites. Elsewhere we often see either a single community organization (as in Legler, New Jersey) or competing community groups with separate memberships (as in Love Canal). Alternatively, we may see a group composed of persons who have suffered specific health problems (as in Hardeman County, Tennessee).

Politicians such as Senator Edward Kennedy, Representative Edward Markey, state representative Nicholas Paleologos, and state senator Richard Krauss helped spread the word about the Woburn situation.

Still, Woburn's ascent to national significance must eventually be credited to conscious organizing efforts by the victims and their neighbors. They took “favorable” circumstances, created more of their own, and wove events into a tight web. In most other contaminated communities, victims fail to counteract government stonewalling. Woburn victims and their supporters showed unusual courage and persistence in withstanding so much hostility, obstruction, inaction, and ineffective action.34

As one of the victims’ father remarked—

What we did was a start, I think. That is square one. It did show the people out there that if you are wronged by a corporation that arbitrarily pollutes your water or your yard or your air or something like that, that, yes, there is an avenue that you can pursue to bring about a just [solution]—to cease it.34

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Winchester, MA show in the top left of the Mystic River Watershed.61

Winchester is situated directly south of Woburn, and the Aberjona River likewise flows  southward from Woburn through Winchester toward the Mystic Lakes. Renown by early settlers for its natural beauty, Winchester’s early economic development largely hinged upon mills along the lotic water of the Aberjona. The Aberjona River, which is now centuries removed from being safe to swim in, is a center feature in the city’s well documented past.

While tangential from the topic at hand, I feel compelled to share witht the reader one of the more noteworthy stories about the Aberjona River, as described in the 1936 History of Winchester, published by the town themselves— “There ought somewhere to be recorded the sad story of Tufts Richardson, a descendant of Ezekiel, who met his end by drowning himself in the Aberjona on November 16, 1826. Hardly six months before, the young man had taken unto himself a wife with whom, however, he seems to have lived unhappily. We have it on the authority of his kinsman, Nathaniel A. Richardson, who was a small boy when the suicide occurred, that its cause was this: Tufts’ wife Mary had baked a number of loaves of brown bread, some of which turned sour before they were eaten. The young wife told her husband he must eat them up before any more loaves were baked. He refused; she insisted. In the end rather than eat the sour bread the harassed husband went out and threw himself into the river —perhaps the only case where a man carried his criticism of his bride’s cooking to so desperate a length.”62

Winchester, like Woburn, was dominated by leather tanneries and machinery manufacturers in the 19th century. Indeed, the Beggs & Cobb Tannery in Winchester was purported to be the largest tannery of upper leather in the world by the late 1890s.4

A 2017 report written by historian Ellen Knight for the town of Winchester chronologued the history of industrial development along the Aberjona.63 In it, Knight showcased quotes from early 20th century town planning documents regarding water quality along the Aberjona—

1911: “*River channel at Manchester Field was shallow because of material washing into the stream, and the original river channel…Along the shore were many dead eels, and the river was covered with scum at several points. Many street drains emptied into the river. The channels around the islands were almost filled with accumulations of street washings.*”

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Exterior of Algonquin Tannery on Abjerona River from 1922 Mass. Fish & Wildlife report32

1928, Judkins Pond (aka Black Ball Pond) ‘is a shallow flowed area, nearly dry in the summer months. … All about the Pond cat tails and other growths hold water in puddles forth propagation of the mosquitoes’ …

*‘Judkins Pond…some fifteen acres are covered to a depth estimated at sixty feet, with a liquid of about the consistency and appearance of black bean soup.’*

At the northwest end was an ash dump. In the summer the pond could be nearly dry.

1928, Cranberry Bog conservation area: Above the cranberry bog the land is low, with a dug canal overflowing at spots into the original Aberjona River bed. Beyond the town line is the Atlantic Gelatin Company Works, with its large area of settling beds and piles of waste material. This deposit must have accumulated for years; the whole hillside and low-dyked areas are covered with the lime-colored, sticky mess, the land appears to be saturated and evidently seeps into the Aberjona River and is washed out in time of heavy rain.

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Photo of surveyors from a 1922 Mass. Fish & Wildlife study of Aberjona River Pollution32

1932, Leonard Pond [now Leonard Field]: Across the river, the J. O. Whitten Co. Gelatin Works was ‘dumping sludge refuse upon their property, near the margin of the stream.

Located at 50 Cross St., the McLetchy Japanning Factory, was ‘also dumping wastes upon the low, wet areas.’

Park commissioners announce plans that ‘In place of swamp lands and mosquito-breeding marshes, there will be attractive self-draining park lands, with ponds that will be suitable for bathing and canoeing in summer and skating in winter.’

1935, Leonard Pond: Aforementioned beach closed. The metropolitan sewer frequently overflowed into the river, which originally fed the pool. The state Board of Health closed the pool.

1938, Leonard Pond: The swimming area is cleaned out by pumping out the water, removing two to four feet of sewerage sludge and mud, and spreading out clean sand.

1953, Leonard Pond: [Swimming area] closed due to pollution, apparently from the state sewer line.

1955, Aberjona River during Hurricane Diane: *The Water and Sewer Department worked until Sunday night on sewers which were overtaxed because people had opened sewer caps to drain cellars. In violation of the law, uncapping of sewers filled Winchester’s mains with more water than they could handle. Some people were shocked when they pulled open sewer caps and sewage water began running into their basements*.


“This river of ours has to be seen, and smelled, to be believed.”

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Winchester Star, June 22, 195663


1986, Leonard Pond: Swimming area pumped dry, cleaned, and provided with new sand; reportedly it had the 'clearest water in many years.'

1990, Leonard Pond: Closed for swimming permanently.62


By the second half of the 20th century, Winchester began transforming into a disproportionately affluent community, due in large part to easier highway transportation to and from the city. A 1982 report published by the Massachusetts Historical Commission explained—

Here too, residential development was primarily responsible for the expansion. In this case, however, greater affluence resulted in the construction of mostly single-family houses. In towns like Milton, Newton and Winchester, neighborhoods of fashionable, and occasionally pretentious, houses grew up. Around these developed small commercial centers, country clubs and other middle-class support services.

In the outer suburban areas of Boston's regional core, residential development was characterized by greater affluence and lower density than housing in the inner suburban areas… This kind of affluent development took place in towns like Milton, Brookline, Newton, Belmont, Winchester and Winthrop.4

On the consequences of the societal shift towards suburban living, the Commission’s report continued—

In the same way that automobiles modified public recreational interests, they began to re-orient settlement. Particularly with construction of entirely new highway systems, such as Route 128, industrial as well as commercial and residential development became feasible, even attractive, in areas that previously had experienced little or no development interest. It would require several decades before the full implications of this shift became evident.4

Today, Winchester is known more for its ornate residences throughout the town than for its history as a major manufacturing hub.

Households in Winchester, MA had a median annual income of $152,196 in 2017,64 which is more than the median annual income of $60,336 across the entire United States. 99% of the population of Winchester, MA has health coverage, with 72.5% on employee plans, and 3.35% on Medicaid. 83% of its residents are white alone and 12% are Asian alone.64


African American and Latino communities are overrepresented in the majority in communities that border hazardous waste sites within the United States. Environmental inequalities exacerbate already marked levels of socioeconomic inequality across race, for several reasons.

Zoning

More than 30 years ago in 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice released a report assessing US population demographic characteristics in areas near hazardous waste sites. Their findings, sourced from US Census Bureau and EPA data, illustrated some of the most overt examples of institutional racism by way of land zoning —

  • Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous waste facilities had the highest composition of racial and ethnic residents. In communities with two or more facilities or one of the nation's five largest landfills, the average minority percentage of the population [In this report, 'minority percentage of the population' was used as a measure of 'race'] was more than three times that of communities without facilities (38 percent vs. 12 percent)
  • Three out of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills in the United States were located in predominantly Black or Latino [as documented by the census] communities. These three landfills accounted for 40 percent of the total estimated commercial landfill capacity in the nation.
  •  Three out of every five Black and Latino Americans lived in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.65

Twenty years later in 2007, their report Toxic Wastes and Race and Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty showed underwhelming progress —

  • In metropolitan areas, where four of every five hazardous waste facilities are located, people of color percentages in hazardous waste host neighborhoods are significantly greater than those in no host areas (57% vs. 33%)
  • More than 870,000 of the 1.9 million (46 percent) housing units for the poor, mostly minorities, sit within about a mile of factories that reported toxic emissions to the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • More than 600,000 students in Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Michigan and California were attending nearly 1,200 public schools, with largely African Americans and other children of color, that are located within a half mile of federal Superfund or state identified contaminated sites.66

 

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Indices of black-white segregation in Northern cities, 1860–1970 67


Misperceptions of American Progress in Racial Equality

From its beginnings in America, the chief dilemma of liberal democracy has been this war between liberty and power. Because each is defined by the absence of the other, they cannot be disentangled; because each jeopardizes the other, they cannot be made to coexist.68

Americans who are not already exposed to these living conditions tend to not go out of their way to observe them, and thus will tend not to see the racial disparities of housing in the country. Moreover, there is a body of evidence pointing to a common misperception, one held primarily by white Americans, that the country has made far more significant strides in the realm of racial income inequality than it actually has.

A study published in 2019 by Yale University’s Institute for Social and Policy Studies surveyed a nationally representative sample of 1008 black and white adults about how they perceived the average income of a white family as compared to the average income of a black family, for 12 different years spanning from 1963 to the current year (survey responses were gathered between 2013 and 2016).

Specifically, the survey asked — 

 “If the typical White family had 100 units of each of five economic categories (i.e., income, wealth, employer-provided health benefits, wages among high-school graduates, wages among individuals with college degrees), how much would the typical Black family have?69

Participants responded using a 0-to-200 scale on which a response of 100 indicated racial equality¹. Analyses of participants’ perceptions of Black–White wealth disparities revealed a substantial underestimation of the racial wealth gap at all 12 time points —

To further contextualize these estimates, we examined frequencies of estimates of the Black–White wealth gap when aggregated across the 12 time points. In this analysis, 97.4% of respondents overestimated Black–White wealth equality by some nonzero amount, 94.5% overestimated equality by 10 or more percentage points, 89.3% overestimated equality by 20 or more percentage points, and 61.5% over-estimated equality by 50 or more percentage points.69

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Source: Kraus, Rucker, & Richeson69

There has been a wide array of research and scholarship published over the past two decades into Americans’ perceptions and misperceptions of racial equality that show similar findings. (For example— Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination, Bertrand & Mullainathan 2004. Ignorance of History and Perceptions of Racism: Another Look at the Marley Hypothesis, Strickhouser 2018. Simply insane? Attributing terrorism to mental illness (versus ideology) affects mental representations of race, Kunst, Myhren, & Onyeador, I. N. 2018. Toward a Social Psychology of Race and Race Relations for the Twenty-First Century, Richeson & Sommers 2016. Racial color blindness: emergence, practice, and implications, Apfelbaum, Norton, & Sommers 2012. The rules of implicit evaluation by race, religion, and age, Axt, Ebersole, & Nosek 2014. Racial formation in perspective: connecting individuals, institutions, and power relations, Saperstein, Penner, & Light, 2013. The devil is in the details: Abstract versus concrete construals of multiculturalism differentially impact intergroup relations, Yogeeswaran, Kumar,Dasgupta, & Nilanjana 2014.)

One particularly relevant observation of this specific study, though, is how one’s ‘frame of reference’ for a given exemplar of a demographic differs depending on the context—

It is possible that the same perceivers are motivated to both overestimate racial equality in the service of narratives of racial progress while also endorsing beliefs that justify the lower-status position of racial minorities, such as the overrepresentation of Black and Latinx Americans in the U.S. carceral system.69

Countless studies have shown race has far wider correlations with one’s social outcomes than does class. Race is a greater determinant than class in whether one is exposed to environmental hazards and trauma, where one lives, what schools one attends, whether one is stopped by the police, who gets arrested, who juries are most likely to convict, who is more likely to get the death penalty, and how long someone is likely to live.70

The overrepresentation of non-white residents within the most ecologically damaged and/or lowest income communities in the country is self-perpetuating. When specific populations are left with no choice but to live in a specific neighborhood, those tend to be the ‘bad neighborhoods.’ (See Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law for a comprehensive inquiry into the topic of the lingering societal and structural inequalities that have resulted from historical racially defined zoning.)


 

To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships. - W.E.B. Du Bois71


The Massachusetts Executive Office of Energy And Environmental Affairs (EEOEA) produces mapped data sets that correlate US Census Demographic data with Massachusetts communities. The EEOEA established a criterion by which to group ‘Environmental Justice Populations’ if any of the following are true:

  • Annual median household income is equal to or less than 65 percent of the statewide median ($62,072 in 2010); or
  • 25% or more of the residents identify as a race other than white; or
  • 25% or more of households have no one over the age of 14 who speaks English only or very well  (“English Isolation”)

As shown in the map below, these classifications are quite widespread within the region surrounding Encore Boston Harbor.

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Adapted by the author from Google Earth, 2019. Data on populations from Census 2010 Environmental Justice Populations, superimposed on map using data from the Bureau of Geographic Information (MassGIS), Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Executive Office of Technology and Security Services, 2019

The Census Bureau’s 2017 American Community Survey documented that:

  • 26.5% of children in Chelsea, MA lived in households with incomes beneath the poverty line, versus just 3.8% in Arlington
  • 24% of Everett residents are black, versus less than 1% in Winchester
  • More than half of Malden residents speak a language other than English at home, while nearly 80% of Woburn residents speak solely English at home

Drilling specifically into how the communities of Everett and Chelsea relate to other municipalities in the state provides further context. 13.9% of Everett residents live below the poverty line (just $25,465 for a family of two parents and two kids, according to data published by the US Census Bureau), more than 20% higher than the state average. Next door, 19.5% of Chelsea residents live below the poverty line, 75% higher than the state average.72 The correlation between the disproportionately high levels of poverty in these two cities and their racial makeup is the subject of the rest of Part 6.

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Everett

The Encore Resort at 1 Broadway in Everett, MA— however disruptive to the surrounding neighborhoods it may be when operational—is likely among the least disruptive occupants of the land parcel in centuries. As with the Woburn IndustriPlex in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, factories and biochemical plants rapidly expanded in the lower end of the Mystic River.

Large parts of Everett and Chelsea—originally saltmarsh— were transformed by industry and railroads. In contrast to Woburn, these cities had the additional ecological burden brought from being New England’s preeminent shipping and rail terminals. The Massachusetts Historical Commission detailed in a 1982 report—

As the distribution center for much of New England, Boston's waterfront had long been cluttered with wharves and warehouses. During the last half of the nineteenth-century these were joined by vast coal yards which held the reserves required to fuel the railroads, steamships and power generating plants. New technologies required new fuels and by the early twentieth-century, another series of storage facilities, this time for oil, kerosene and other petrochemicals was established. This kind of terminal fringe developed in East and South Boston, Charlestown and Everett.4

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Adapted by the author from 1830 map of Boston and adjacent towns, present site of Encore Boston Harbor annotated with star73

The 1912 Historical Register published by the neighboring city of Medford chronologued the evolution of the 1 Broadway plot of land, though Everett had only been incorporated as a city in 1892. The land originated as a part-time island, depending upon the tides. The earliest recorded owner of the parcel was Sam Swan, who had purchased it directly from the town of Charlestown. During low tide, he would pick the vegetation growing on the sandbar and sell it to ‘a man in Reading, for $30 a year.’10

When Swan died in 1825, he bequeathed the land to his son Caleb, who promptly sold the land to the Atwood family the proprietors of the still operational Union Oyster House.74 The Atwoods harvested oysters from the clam beds to supply the restaurant for decades to follow, until railroads and industrial buildings built along the coast polluted the land irrecoverably, eliminating its habitability to oysters. The Historical Register observed—

The island was gradually enlarged until similar filling from the Malden (Everett) shore reached it and the place was an island no longer. At the present time it is thickly covered with factories of various kinds, chemical works, and the accessories of railroad work, all in marked contrast to the days of Dr. Swan.10


The first chemical company along the Mystic was the New England Chemical company. Though it was only operational from 1868 to 1872, many others operationalized shortly thereafter. In 1872, New England Chemical was taken over by the Cochrane Chemical Company.75 Cochrane Chemical grew rapidly in the years that followed, while paving the way for other industrial sectors to move manufacturing operations to Everett, including paint, varnish, dye, iron, steel, oil, gas, and coke refineries. Merrimac Chemical Co. acquired Cochrane in 1917, which itself was acquired by Monsanto in 1929.75

Like the chemical manufacturers, the oil and gas conglomerates were consolidating rapidly, monopolizing the state’s energy production. In a unique 1916 publication, The Boston Social Survey: An Enquiry Into the Relation Between Financial and Political Affairs in Boston, author Grover Shoholm’s commentary traces the familiar public-private parternship approach to providing public services, and its consequences that have yet to be addressed over a century later. For fear it may otherwise be lost to history, I share this passage in full —

The story of Gas has been long since told. There raged a fierce fight, years ago, but a settlement was effected [sic], and, as usual, the public forgets. The turmoil subsides; headlines flash forth a new murder trial or a divorce or the World's Series or other such more important matters; so the public soon forgets.

Mr. A. C. Burrage, a lawyer once upon a time by no means widely known, discovered in the charter of the Brookline Gas Light Company a provision under which that corporation was empowered to extend its service into Boston.

He called the attention of Henry H. Rogers and the Standard Oil interests to this charter and managed to negotiate a sale of the Brookline company to them. The charter was used as a lever by which these interests forced their way into the control of the gas situation in this city.

Burrage received only a fee of $250,000 for the services he rendered; but coming into the good graces of powerful friends prepared the way for acquiring the fortune which he has gained through mining enterprises. Burrage is now known as a powerful copper magnate.

Of interest today, however, is not the story of the shameless means through which the gas interests gained their ends, but rather the relation of the gas industry to the people of Boston at the present time.

The gas companies in and around Boston are gathered into a group, a holding company, — technically a “voluntary association,'' — which calls itself the Massachusetts Gas Companies.

In 1908 six companies composed the system: Boston Consolidated Gas Co., New England Gas and Coke Co., East Boston Gas Co., Chelsea Gas Light Co., Citizens' Gas Co. of Quincy., New England Coal and Coke Co.

The East Boston and Chelsea companies have since consolidated. In the year 1910 there was included: Newton and Watertown Gas Co.

and the next year the combine included: Federal Coal and Coke Co., Boston Towboat Co.

Now the process is going on of acquiring the stock of: J. B. B. Coal Co.

In addition, the system comprises subsidiary manufacturing companies which utilize the valuable by-products of gas production for making such things as dyes and explosives. In 1910 gas made up two thirds of the net earnings, and coal one third. In 1914 the coal profits had increased to 43.6 per cent, of the net earnings.

This is one of the ways in which the profits of the predominant element, the Boston Consolidated Gas Company, have been hidden through the various subtle devices of higher accounting. The Gas Company buys coal from itself, or rather from one of its brothers. The money is all kept in the family, as it were. In this way the modest little profit fixed by the famous “sliding scale” is held at its proper level.

Only a part of the story is told by the published figures, which show that from 1908 to 1915 the profits of the Boston Consolidated have mounted from year to year until they are now higher by about $300,000. The electric department of its business, which averaged $145,000 a year, was sold to the Edison Electric Illuminating Company on Sept. 1, 1909.

Surrounded by a dozen devices for disposing of its surplus profits, there is but little hope that in accordance with the “sliding scale” agreement a reduction in the price of gas will follow increased earnings. The result of the many ingenious arrangements of these related companies may be seen in the dividend statements which appear from time to time in the financial columns of the daily newspapers:

The Boston Consolidated Gas Company has declared a dividend of 2.5 percent., making 8.5 percent, for the year, as compared with 8 percent, last year. The New England Coal and Coke Company has declared a dividend of 10 percent, and an extra dividend of 10 percent. The Boston Towboat Company has declared a dividend of 12 per cent., as compared with 10 percent, last year. The Federal Coal and Coke Company has declared a dividend of 15 percent, as compared with 10 percent, last year. The East Boston Gas Company has declared a dividend of 2.5 per cent, and an extra of 1 percent., making 11 percent, for the year.

On page 232A of the 1913 report of the Massachusetts Gas Commissioners will be found a schedule showing how much gas the Massachusetts Gas Companies sold to each other and how much they charged each other for it:

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According to this table it appears that the New England Gas and Coke Company sold almost 3,000,000 thousand [sic] feet of gas to the Boston Consolidated at 28 cents a thousand; the Boston Consolidated sold 184,000 thousand feet to the East Boston Co. at 45 cents; the East Boston Co. sold 20,000 thousand feet to the Suburban Gas Co. of Revere at 50 cents.

The Massachusetts Gas Companies owns all the above gas companies with the exception of the Suburban Gas Company of Revere. The Massachusetts Gas Companies, therefore, sells its gas three times and makes three profits before it sells to the Revere Company. Then the Suburban sells to the people of Revere at 90 cents.

The gas which is produced at the Everett works of the New England Gas and Coke Company at a cost of about 20 cents finally does reach the consumer, but not until prosperity has been “passed around.”

The timeliness of a little consideration as regards gas is emphasized by the fact that the matter of continuing and extending the “sliding scale” system of gas prices and dividends as at present applied to the Boston Consolidated Gas Company is now before the Legislature.

If this matter played a part in the last election, it was, like other matters of a similar nature, considered only by a small group in the vicinity of State Street; it was not an open campaign issue. Our modern civilization has evolved a wondrous system whereby a business situation, a position of advantage over others, is clinched by means of words printed upon paper. The business strategist has his position given the force of law.

It is around these vantage points of protective law that political battles are waged. With reference to the controlling elements of the political situation, we do not err greatly if we assume that important political struggles are not fought for the sake of the pure spiritual satisfaction of overcoming the wrong and vindicating the right.

There is no important private purpose that cannot be translated into terms of public policy.

It is true, the political parties annually conduct an elaborate form of debate and bring into play all their machinery for producing stage effects of idealism. But in politics words, ideas, disinterested sentiments, have little force.

That the real governing power is the “will of the people,” that government is today maintained and promoted by the general conscience and the general conviction — is a popular myth that would evoke a grin from any experienced campaign manager.76


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Drawing of the New England Gas and Coke Company facility, date unknown77


Monsanto had purchased the Everett plant from Merrimac Chemical along with the Woburn plants. Unlike the Woburn facilities which Monsanto sold shortly thereafter, the Everett facility was kept operational from 1929 to 1983. In this period, the industrial sector in Boston saw a marked scale back, as manufacturers relocated their operations to more tax and regulatorily advantageous towns and states, if they did not leave the country altogether in response to union victories for labor protections. The state’s highway system which had been built up in this time allowed for many residents to sprawl outwards from the urban centers. A Boston Historical Commission report explains—

The combination of industrial stagnation, loss of residential population and increased fringe activity brought severe problems to Boston's central core. Among these were abandonment and decay. Most evident around obsolete railroad and water front facilities during the period, these problems were harbingers of more serious difficulties yet to come.4

In 1983, Monsanto sold the plant to Boston Edison. Monsanto specified restrictions on the deed that the land was not suitable for any purpose other than industrial use. Boston Edison sold the property in 1995, and the parcel changed hands several more times after that, with the deed’s use restriction clause being lost along the way.78

Notably, it was also in 1983 that the state enacted the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention and Response Act, which disallowed such omissions.

On May 2, 1985, firefighters in Everett, MA responded to reports of a fire in overgrown shrubbery at the site. As a result of the fire, started by a child playing with fireworks, the dense brush throughout the land was partly razed, unearthing fifty to sixty barrels containing a variety of unknown substances.

As outlined in a memorandum by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP), the drums contained one or more of three types of industrial waste — a clear liquid, a white liquid, and a black solid.

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The Boston Globe, May 3, 1985

MassDEP’s memo gave an initial conclusion that the clear and white liquids were “most likely a waste byproduct of melamine formaldehyde resin.” Melamine formaldehyde resin, a substance widely used in automotive coatings, epoxy coatings and polyester appliance coatings, emits toxic fumes when exposed to fire, which it would have been from the grass fire.79

The black material, meanwhile, was originally described by Monsanto as ‘roofing tar,’ but it appeared to be quite similar to a substance found buried in a riverbank area adjacent to the plant in June 1984. In that incident, Monsanto removed and disposed of approximately twelve hundred tons of this same black, tarry material, after it was revealed to actually be a mix of toxic chemicals, not simply roofing tar.80

Attempts to identify the chemicals, as well as when they had been deposited into the ground would carry on for years. In their response to an information request in 1992, Monsanto provided an account for the disposal of the wastes,81 which left a bit to be desired—

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While Monsanto took the position of not being able to confirm or deny toxic pollution on the site, residents could. One 2014 Boston Globe article recounted an acid leak at the Monsanto plant in 1956, and the hardship it caused residents.82 The Globe reported on other major incidents at the plant in 1951, ’55, ’56, and ’58.

In 1987, the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection detected high concentrations of metals and semi-volatile compounds in the soil at the neighboring Massachusetts Public Transit Authority (MBTA) repair facility, which has since been sold to Wynn and been subsumed into the neighboring Encore Boston Harbor property. The MBTA contracted a construction engineering consulting agency to assess the site.83

The investigation, published in 1996, detailed the contaminants and the history of the site. Contamination extended horizontally through the soil beyond the MBTA property, and consisted primarily of metals including lead and mercury.


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Chelsea, MA within the Mystic River Watershed.84

Chelsea shares much of the same industrious history as Everett, but as the southern end of the Mystic River, it has endured the brunt of accumulated manufacturing waste produced upstream.

Comprising a series of drumlins surrounded by low-lying areas, a sizeable share of the city’s land area was developed by filling salt marshes. Sitting at low elevations, these coastal areas are tidally influenced, with high groundwater tables and poorly draining soil.85

Through the end of the 18th century, Chelsea was primarily farmland; the Chelsea waterfront was a rich source of fish and shellfish, and Chelsea Creek served as a trading post for outgoing vessels.85 By the end of the nineteenth century, Chelsea bore no resemblance to this description. The shipbuilding industry spurred rapid growth in Chelsea’s industrial and transportation infrastructure. Shipbuilding was replaced with the more lucrative leather tanning, manufacturing of rubber, dyes, and varnish, each industries further bolstered by the immense shipping port that the Chelsea waterfront became.

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Chalk manufacturer Stickney, Tirrell and Co., picture taken in ~1880 at their plant along Chelsea Creek at the corner of Marginal and Charles streets86

For residents and commuters through the city of Chelsea today, the physical consequences of this unfortunate geographic placement are quite visible to the naked eye.

Indeed, while Chelsea too has a notable history largely defined in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by chemical, leather, rubber, and other industrial manufacturing operations, that history is more familiar to Massachusetts residents. The more inconvenient yet drastically urgent topic of discussion is that of the implicit, stark racial and economic inequities of socioeconomic status and class mobility of Chelsea and Everett, versus that of other communities in the Mystic River Watershed.

Longtime residents of Chelsea have by now grown accustomed to playing the role of ecological waste martyr for the sake of surrounding communities, while themselves having lagging infrastructure for municipal services like sewage treatment.

Approximately 70% of Chelsea is serviced by ‘combined sewers,’ designed to collect both wastewater and stormwater runoff in the same pipe. Most of the time, Chelsea’s combined sewers transport all of the wastewater and stormwater to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s (MWRA’s) Deer Island Treatment Plant, where it is treated and then discharged to the Atlantic Ocean. However, during large rainstorms, the combined sewer pipes can exceed capacity. To prevent sewage from backing up into buildings or out of manholes, combined sewer overflow (CSO) systems like Chelsea’s and about 770 other cities across the country have special overflow structures to release the excess wet-weather flow into nearby water bodies.87

Under the federal Clean Water Act, the EPA regulates CSO discharges through the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit program. The EPA allows Chelsea three different locations where, during heavy rainstorms, it may discharge untreated sewage and debris into the Chelsea River. Chelsea’s 2015 annual report of ‘Combined Sewer Overflow’ showed that one of these sites discharged a total of 551,935 gallons, and another released 1,181,189 gallons.88

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Chelsea Permitted CSO Locations as of March, 202087

Meanwhile, all of Boston’s Logan Airport’s jet fuel is distributed via Chelsea Creek.89 Seventy to eighty percent of all of New England’s heating fuel is stored along the creek, and over 70 percent of its gasoline and diesel fuel. Road salt for 350 communities in the New England area is too stored along the Chelsea Creek.

The 2019 Chelsea Creek Municipal Harbor Plan documented that—

Chelsea’s industrial activity has resulted in oil and other hazardous material contamination. The Massachusetts General Law, Chapter 21E, also known as the Massachusetts Oil and Hazardous Material Release Prevention Act, is a statute which encompasses issues related to the identification and cleanup of property contaminated by releases of oil and/or hazardous material to the environment.

Under this law, approximately 48% of the land along the Chelsea waterfront in our study area has Activity and Use Limitations (AULs), which signify the presence of known oil and/or hazardous material contamination remaining at that location after a cleanup under the Massachusetts Contingency Plan. These AULs are a result of the current and historic industrial presence in Chelsea.85

More recently, energy company Eversource announced it will build a new substation next to the river. As with Encore Boston Harbor, this project is framed as a public good because it is restoring a contaminated brownfield site into something less societally harmful. As with For a Cleaner Environment in Woburn, the organization GreenRoots has been at the frontlines advocating for the environmental justice of Chelsea residents.

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Source: Sjostrom and Leist, 199490

In 1994, a provision was added to the Clean Water Act under “Executive Order 12898.” It dictated that the EPA (as well as all other federal agencies), to the greatest practicable extent, “Make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations in the United States.”

In the March of 2014, the EPA conducted an Environmental Justice Analysis under this provision, focused on communities surrounding the seven bulk petroleum storage facilities along the Chelsea River.91

Based on numbers they obtained from the Census Bureau, the report showed that among the study area’s 53,300 residents, 66% were non-white, and 65% primarily spoke a language other than English at home. The report confoundingly concluded that—

Although EPA acknowledges that the Chelsea River and surrounding communities are impacted by many environmental burdens, EPA has determined that the facilities’ discharges will not result in disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects on minority or low-income populations within the meaning of Executive Order 12898.91

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EPA map from their 2014 report, highlighting the study area containing facilities storing petroleum products (e.g., gasoline, ethanol, diesel, kerosene, and fuel oil), within a half mile of the Chelsea River, that have been issued National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) surface water permits under the Clean Water Act.91,92


The essence of effective racial discrimination was and remains the creation of rules and circumstances that minimize the necessity for new acts of intentional discrimination. Once such a system has been established, all that is accomplished by forbidding further intentional discrimination is interference with the ability of biased officials to fine-tune the system and adapt it to unforeseen developments.

-Eric Schnapper93


While all of this environmental data on Chelsea’s current state is grim, there are straightforward ways to improve its ecological resources, such as to just replace empty lots with trees. According to the Center for Watershed Protection, the amount of pavement and buildings present in a watershed is a good indicator of the condition of its streams. As coverage by these hard surfaces increases, stream health tends to decline accordingly. In the contiguous U.S., urban impervious surfaces, such as roads, buildings and parking lots, cover 43,000 square miles— an area nearly the size of the State of Ohio.71

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Tree Cover in Greater Boston as of 2018 94

Tree planting, though, does not solve for city’s immense racial inequalities. While industrial development has continued, data on the health impacts of these industries upon residents continues to demonstrate the disparities.

According to an October 2019 report by Mass General Hospital, Chelsea’s age-adjusted mortality rate per 100,000 is 963.8, while that of the state as a whole is 668.9. Twenty-nine percent of children in Chelsea alive below the poverty line, 463 children are homeless, and eviction rates have risen substantially between 2014 and 2016.95

In a survey of Winthrop, Revere, and Chelsea—three of the poorest communities in the Greater Boston region, Chelsea-based community health workers (CHWs) described “slumlords” who do not maintain adequate housing conditions for their tenants. Their patients who are immigrants are reluctant to complain due to their immigration status, thus remaining trapped in substandard conditions.95

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2019 Mass General Community Report 95

According to the 2012-2016 American Community Survey, Chelsea’s median household income was $49,614.96 This correlates to stark data on median household net worth by race in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk in Massachusetts; and Rockingham and Strafford New Hampshire).

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Comparison of Household Median Net Worth by Race/Ethnicity in the Boston Metropolitan Statistical Area (Essex, Middlesex, Norfolk, Plymouth, and Suffolk in Massachusetts; and Rockingham and Strafford New Hampshire)97,98


From the time of the Articles of Confederation, in each era, in each legislative act, in each political program, we see first a struggle against power on behalf of liberty and then a struggle against liberty, against privatism, against radical atomism on behalf of common goals and public goods that only power can obtain.68

Benjamin Barber


The Path of Least Resistance

While each of the cities within the Mystic River Watershed have a lengthy history of industrial pollution, the extent to which they remain polluted today is largely determined by their proximity to the southern end of The Watershed. There has been a marked decline in the number of companies whose operations produce hazardous waste in the cities that are upriver—Winchester, Woburn, and their neighbors to the north, east, and west. While this divergence is attributable to numerous discrete variables, the divergence in the cities’ racial makeup and household income is attributable to many of those same variables.

The relative absence of their political leverage is at least as significant as the absence of economic power, writes Harvard environmental law scholar Richard Lazarus—

Entities within the federal government with the greatest impact on the give-and-take process that marks environmental protection include the courts, offices within multiple executive branch agencies, and a plethora of congressional committees with over- lapping jurisdiction on environmental matters. Bargains struck in the lawmaking process are expressed in the distributions of the law's benefits and burdens among those interest groups competing for the decisionmakers' attention.

Because legislative and regulatory priorities are established through this lawmaking process, those wielding greater political influence over this process are more likely to have their problems receive ample attention in the first instance. Where the resources required to enact a law or to initiate an enforcement action are especially great, such a political advantage can very well be determinative of how a program's benefits are ultimately distributed. The same is true for allocations of those burdens associated with environmental protection. 99

Shareholder value is maximized when a firm adopts pollution strategies which are not only more economically efficient but that also offer the path of least political resistance. The less political power a community possesses, the fewer resources a community has to defend itself; the lower the level of community awareness and mobilization against potential ecological threats, the more likely they are to experience arduous environmental and human health problems at the hands of business and government. As a result, poorer towns and communities of color suffer an unequal exposure to ecological hazards.100

Economist Harold Barnett writes in his book Toxic Debts about the characteristics of American communities that have been able to adequately address ecological disasters and their residual wastes —

For small, poor, and rural communities, it was less likely even with concentrated benefits. The income, ethnic, and educational characteristics that made these communities attractive sites for hazardous waste facilities also made them less successful advocates for cleanup.60

These are the types of communities disproportionately situated near hazardous waste sites. In the Mystic River Watershed, one’s race is inarguably a strong indicator of their means. Race is correlated to where one can afford live, as it is where they can afford to leave. Where there are those who cannot afford to leave are those who are de facto segregated.

Enforcement comes from regulation, regulation from politics.

When Donald Trump took office in January 2017, he worked promptly to dismantle the Clean Water Rule and many other environmental protections.

His first pick for EPA administrator was Scott Pruitt, former attorney general of Oklahoma. In his former role, Pruitt frequently had sued the EPA to attempt to block all new environmental protections. The Guardian published an expose detailing his more than 7,500 emails with fossil fuel interests, including the Koch brothers and one of the Koch’s lobbying arms, the American Legislative Exchange Council.101 According to The New York Times, he led 14 different challenges of EPA rules. In 13 of those 14 challenges, campaign contributors of Pruitt’s joined as co-parties.102 One such challenge was to the Clean Water Rule, submitted by Murray Energy Corporation against the EPA, with Pruitt as a state petitioner.103

Amidst a litany of corruption investigations, Pruitt resigned from the post in July 2018.104,105 In his place, Trump appointed Andrew Wheeler. Wheeler accepted the position, leaving his job as a lobbyist for law firm Faegre Baker Daniels, where his best-paying client was that aforementioned Murray Energy Corporation.106

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EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler. Francis Chung/E&E News107

In September 2019, Wheeler’s EPA announced that it was repealing the Clean Water Rule.108 The repeal was temporarily delayed by a multitude of lawsuits from environmental advocacy organizations, but it was made official on January 23, 2020.109 The repeal was of course just one example of Trump’s EPA’s onslaught against environmental protections.

More recently, Wheeler has leveraged the COVID-19 crisis with impunity. In a March 2020 announcement, the EPA announced the first of its unsolicited economic relief measures for businesses to sidestep environmental regulation—

E.P.A. is committed to protecting human health and the environment, but recognizes challenges resulting from efforts to protect workers and the public from COVID -19 may directly impact the ability of regulated facilities to meet all federal regulatory requirements. This temporary policy is designed to provide enforcement discretion under the current, extraordinary conditions, while ensuring facility operations continue to protect human health and the environment.110

Many of Wheeler’s water regulation rollbacks have been largely justified under the guise of shifting the authority to regulate environmental resources from the federal to the state level, joining the ranks of many historical figures on the right side of history with that reasoning.[a]

In contrast to the conclusions enumerated in the Clean Water Rule, the EPA under Trump has cited the connectedness of water bodies as the justification to deregulate environmental protections at the federal level. For example, in a November 2019 rule, the EPA determined that—

The known boundaries of contamination can be expected to change over time. Thus, in most cases, it may be impossible to describe the boundaries of a release with absolute certainty. Further, as noted previously, [the Superfund National Priority List] does not assign liability to any party or to the owner of any specific property.111

This 'Who could be sure?' perspective, that EPA’s function is to enforce only congressionally enacted protections—as weak as they are—conflicts with what has historically been the “liability at any cost” standard of CERCLA. Labor attorney Martha Clarke explained the shift in a 2017 report for the Northwestern Law Review—

By imposing a much higher standard of intent, courts are actively subverting the original intention of CERCLA to avoid liability loopholes based on difficult-to-prove, subjective criteria. One of the animating factors behind the major environmental statutes was the need to develop causes of action that would serve as effective stand-ins for the common law causes of action that courts had previously relied upon in the environmental context… One of the main challenges of using common law causes of action was establishing causation between the harm and the defendant’s conduct…Given the complicated nature of environmental contamination, direct causation is difficult to prove and often depends on the amorphous notions of ‘fault’ and ‘state of mind’ that were difficult to quantify and could be easily manipulated by the parties.112


As covered in part 2, it took many years to identify and quantify the extent of the public health crisis that resulted from the Love Canal disaster—many years beyond the initial litigation that resulted from the disaster. For example, it was not until July of 1982 that the state of New York and the EPA determined that dioxin was found in the canal at concentrations 100,000 times the level known to kill laboratory animals.23 Only a year after that, Occidental Chemical settled with the majority of Love Canal’s residents impacted by the pollution for an average payment of $14,250 per resident. How quantifiable could the injuries to the residents have been at the time of the settlement?

There were legislative protections promptly enacted by Congress after this spate of environmental disasters—just not the legislative protections for individuals.


Non-Confrontational Voluntary Compliance

CERCLA was signed into law by Jimmy Carter on December 11, 1980. But the dissenting arguments for the environmental protections were rhetorically impactful, as they hinged upon mischaracterized—but politically artful—portrayals of how the legislation should be enforced. For example, in 1980, the indelible Texas representative Ron Paul rebuked the polluted communities’ residents for even seeking damages—not the polluters themselves for polluting.

His reasoning was sound if given cursory critical thought: free markets are self-regulating, those who are injured by the presence of toxic chemicals should have left at the first hint of their presence, and it was a burden to society for ‘taxpayer’ dollars to go towards the state investing any resources into holding polluters accountable. Paul rationalized—

Yes, there is always danger in a free society. There is always danger everywhere, but the egalitarians insist that we have perfect safety, perfect remuneration, and perfect redistribution or wealth. This is the ultimate goal of the egalitarians. Yes, it is an accepted fact that for the past 50 years we have assumed that it is a proper function of Government to spread the fruits of labor by acts of the Government and at the discretion of the politicians. But must we go to the next step and assume that we will share the penalties as well? I believe sincerely that we should hold individuals responsible for all their acts…

The real issue we are dealing with in this legislation is whether or not we as individuals are responsible for our acts. Passage of this bill would clearly indicate that we as a legislative body do not accept the notion of self-responsibility, and that innocent people should pay a penalty for the negligence of others…

No one can deny that danger exists with toxic waste just as it exists with thousands of other things we deal with daily in modern America. It is obvious that life and life's activities are never without danger. The goal, no matter how well intended, of perfect protection from all potential danger is an illusion. It is doomed to frustrate the egalitarians even more than the utopian goal of equitable distribution of wealth by force of the state-they also eagerly seek…

The absence of a clear understanding of individual responsibility is apparent in our judicial system as well today. Our sociological judges are ‘soft’ on criminals, giving minimal sentence to vicious criminals because they have been ‘victims of an unfair society’ and are not responsible for their acts. Since society hurt them, society must pay…

Were our courts allowed to function under the common, tort law, any suits that might arise could be settled equitably and quickly. It is not the judicial system, but the regulatory system that has been imposed by both State and Federal governments, that is slow and complex. Were this system abolished, the judicial system could function properly. Bypassing our judicial system and leaving the regulatory system intact is the precise opposite of what should be done.

The Love Canal episode demonstrates so well how government-the City of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Falls Board of Education-creates a problem and then how that problem is compounded by the hysteria of an EPA pseudo-scientist. Government is the problem, not the solution, and the sooner we learn this the better off the country will be. The same ethical standards which insist that the fruits of one's labor be shared forcefully and arbitrarily at the command of the State accept, quite consistently, the notion of ‘spreading the pain’ of paying for personal injury or property damage to everyone ‘equally.' 113

This inspirational portrayal of rugged individualism against all else jived well with recurring American villains Charles and David Koch[b], who deemed Ron Paul the first president of their lobbying arm, Citizens for a Sound Economy (today Americans for Prosperity) within three years of that speech.114

Paul would linger as a monger of dumbfounding takes on environmental regulation for decades to come.


CERCLA was signed into law by Jimmy Carter in December of 1980. The responsibility of its implementation, though, was in the hands of his successor, Ronald Reagan, who took office the very next month. Inaugurated in January of 1981, Reagan abolished the Water Resources Council, eliminated funding for federal participation in river basin commissions, and cut back appropriations to the water-resources research institutes—all in his first year.115 For good measure, Reagan would also remove the solar panels that had been installed on the White House roof during the Carter presidency.

Reagan’s presidency standardized what is now routine practice in republican presidential politics—appointing career advocates for industry deregulation to helm the respective agencies which serve to enforce the regulations of those same regulations. Regarding Reagan’s implementation of the Superfund legislation, economist Harold Barnett writes in Toxic Wastes—

Top positions at the EPA remained unfilled during the first three months of the Reagan term. Those eventually selected to administer EPA and to implement the Superfund program were chosen for their ideological conformity with Reagan administration views of deregulation. Ann Gorsuch [mother of supreme court justice Neil Gorsuch], chosen as EPA administrator, was a lawyer from Colorado with no Washington experience and little substantive experience with environmental issues. As a former Colorado state legislator, she fiercely opposed regulating hazardous waste disposal.60

EPA Administrator Ann Gorsuch’s changes to the Superfund cleanup process heavily favored polluters, as documented in a 1982 report by the House of Representatives’ subcommittee tasked with oversight of federal hazardous waste enforcement—

The Subcommittee observes that this dramatic decline in enforcement litigation is basically attributable to two factors:

1.     EPA’s continual reorganization of its enforcement program since mid-1981, which has resulted in uncertainty and confusion and has adversely impacted employee morale and efficiency

2.     An Enforcement philosophy that emphasizes ‘non-confrontational voluntary compliance’ with environmental statutes and regulations.60

The report concluded that—

Without a strong enforcement policy, backed up by an aggressive program, no one can reasonably believe that EPA’s rhetoric urging “voluntary compliance” will cause many generators, haulers, and disposers of hazardous waste to adhere to the letter of the law. Instead, the improper land filling and indiscriminate disposal of toxic substances will continue to threaten our neighborhoods and contaminate our water supplies.116

Gorsuch’s dismantlement of environmental protections before they had even been fully implemented was not limited to Superfund protections.

The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) was signed into law in 1976, prior to Reagan’s presidency. The intent, according to the initial law, was to — 

Provide technical and financial assistance for the development of management plans and facilities for the recovery of energy and other resources from discarded materials and for the safe disposal of discarded materials, and to regulate the management of hazardous waste.117

This law, however, needed to be expanded in the Hazardous and Solid Waste Amendments of 1984. The amendment was passed under the guise of a need to expand the government’s ability to minimize the future dumping of environmental wastes. Its true intent, however, was to hamper the active, willful botching of the original law’s implementation under Gorsuch’s leadership. Kent Portney, Director of the Institute for Science, Technology and Public Policy at Texas A&M, writes in his 1992 book, Controversial Issues in Environmental Policy: Science vs. Economics vs. Politics, that Gorsuch’s efforts in her post were to effectively serve as an impediment to the regulation —

In terms of actual implementation of RCRA, it was not long before the EPA under Ann Gorsuch began to retreat from what little regulatory effort had already been accomplished. For example, in mid-1981, Gorsuch notified [US Office of Management and Budget] that the EPA would essentially suspend the rules already issued governing existing incinerators and surface hazardous waste storage impoundment areas.

In late 1981, the EPA announced that it would defer or eliminate already-issued financial responsibility regulations. In early 1982, the EPA postponed record-keeping and reporting requirements, eliminated the required assessment of groundwater around areas found to be contaminated by hazardous wastes, and removed the ban on landfill disposal of containerized liquid hazardous wastes… Enforcement of existing regulations was minimal, and the EPA often did nothing to try to ensure that hazardous waste facilities were operated according to permits.118

Individuals’ rights remain today a potent weapon in the modern Republican platform’s nuanced argument against environmental regulations. Specifically, the government’s authority to regulate private land has been readjudicated time and again.

Environmental sociologist Denis Salles’ analysis disects this rhetorical device—

The principle of ‘individual responsibility’, which consists in ‘accounting for your actions before others’ can be adapted in many ways, be it as a legal responsibility exerting normative constraint, as an economic mechanism, as a moral imperative,119 or as a governance mechanism.120 Specifically within the framework of public environmental action, the individual, in its multiple roles of user, citizen, and consumer is placed in a situation where he can expect his choices, decisions and actions to contribute in a tangible way to the resolution of a collective problem.

As a result, however, the individual becomes responsible and accountable before society of the norms to the establishment of which he has explicitly been associated. This tendency to substitute self-regulation to authority and bureaucratic regulation, while granting individuals larger autonomy of action and decision, leads to placing responsibility for their actions on the social actors. The idea is to have individuals assume the consequences of their choices, even though those choices may be limited by structural constraints.121


Reagan-era individualistic discourse framed environmentalism as an infringement of individuals' rights to property, and a threat to one’s income via regulatory pressures imposed upon their employer. Today’s G.O.P. cuts to the chase and simply denies the existence of ecological threats. But irrespective of ideology, individual liberties are made shared by flowing water and groundwater, which connect individual properties to other municipal land parcels, communal drinking water, and neighboring watersheds.[c]

Surely this incompatibility of conservative values with scientific consensus would present a clear opportunity for a strong counter from the Democratic opposition. This would, however, require a rejection of the individualist, market-centric premise of said values, and an acknowledgement that ecosystems' being on the brink of irreversible damage is a variable that simply does not afford the time needed for incremental reform. But while Republicans have done away with the rhetorical nuances on the environmental issue, Democrats’ modern Neoliberal platform has leaned into them.


[a] For deeper exploration of this issue, see Other Rights Revolution (Decker), Unlikely Environmentalist (Milazzo), Republican Reversal (Turner and Isenberg)

[b] Two recommended works on the Koch’s far-reaching influence on popular American discourse are Jane Mayer’s The Koch Brothers’ Covert Ops (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/08/30/covert-operations) and Christopher Leanord’s Kochland.

 [c] In other areas of the country where Native American reservations are located, it is commonplace to find the presence of toxic levels of wastes in water that flows through tribal lands. If the residents in the communities within these lands leave the land to seek cleaner environments, they risk losing reservation land permanently. Dorceta Taylor covers this problem in depth in Toxic Communties.


The Environmental League of Massachusetts, Charles River Watershed Association, Clean Water Action, Conservation Law Foundation, Environment Massachusetts, and Massachusetts Rivers Alliance jointly publish an Energy and Environment Performance Review of each Massachusetts gubernatorial term. Its latest report, published in October 2019 for Republican governor Charlie Baker’s second term, gave an ‘F’ in the Environmental Justice category, ‘D-‘ in the Protecting our Health from Toxic Chemicals category, and ‘D’ in the Solid Waste category.122

It is a luxury to move further away from Superfund sites, and there are immense racial differences in who have that luxury. The pool of Massachusetts residents with the economic means to move further away from toxic waste sites will, of course, generally choose to do so, and those who have that luxury of choice are generally white. This is a contextual phenomenon useful to bear in mind when considering how a state with more than three registered Democrats for every one registered Republican123so frequently elects Republican governors. 

When capital is the determinant of an individual’s ability to physically distance their homes from environmental waste sites, any sociodemographic inequalities latent within their communities are ostensibly manifested through the housing segregation which has defined by those inequalities. Racial segregation in Greater Boston is certainly not attributable to this fact alone, but the presence of such waste sites limits reformative measures not involving systemic change.

Without examining the catalysts which create distinct demo-geographic groupings, these causes are merely moved out of one’s line of sight. By rendering nameless and faceless those who are not within one’s same economic class, it is made easier for the wealthy to recede into individualism.

By understanding these differences in opportunity, the consequences of elected leaders’ policies can better be appreciated and legitimized in the ballot box. Critically however, modern conservatism has regressed in its platform’s environmental position to such an extent that legislative compromise on the part of the Democratic party—to the extent that it was ever a prudent strategy—produces built-to-fail bureaucracy.

It is undeniable that Wheeler’s EPA and the Trump administration’s environmental regulation rollbacks are putting the environmental health of countless communities—particularly people of color and those with low-incomes—in tremendous peril. Much of the ecological damage from their regulatory rollbacks will likely be irreversible. But neither of Trump’s two appointees to lead the EPA, nor the Agency’s actions throughout his presidency were particularly anomalous among Republican presidencies since Reagan. And given the past careers of the Party’s EPA administrator appointments, the policies should not have taken any casual observer by surprise. Indeed, many would argue the more damaging dangers to progressive advocacy for environmental justice and ecological protection are found across the aisle.


The post-Reagan era Democratic Party’s presidential platforms have represented Americans’ ostensibly more progressive option, despite never outright rejecting the framing of many Republican positions.  

Reagan’s economic policy emphasis on federal deregulation, trickle down taxation, and austerity measures shifted tax burden, regulatory oversight, and financial risk away from high income individuals and corporations onto individuals. The Democratic platform was to undo what the Republicans did. In practice though, the Democrats’ party leaders sought largely to undo the regulatory rollbacks, while embracing the Neoliberal framing of one’s civil liberties as being contingent upon their economic value.

In the years since the enactment of the Superfund, federal environmental regulatory measures have been kneecapped by bureaucratic procedure, the outcome of Congressional compromise between Republican representatives who sought to dismantle oversight altogether and Democrats who sought to maximize their constituents’ economic potential—irrespective of existing systemic inequalities.


Neoliberalism is a constructivist project; it endeavors to create the world it claims already exists. It not only aims to govern society in the name of the economy, but also actively creates institutions that work to naturalize the extension of market rationality to all registers of political and social life. Market rationality—competition, entrepreneurialism, calculation—is thus not presumed by neoliberalism as an innate human quality, but is rather asserted as normative, and as something that must be actively cultivated. The practice of governance in the neoliberalizing regime is precisely to cultivate such market rationality in every realm.

Lisa Brawley124


This indifference to existing, systemic inequalities impedes progress in racial justice. Dr. Dana-ain Davis, professor of urban studies at Queens College and the Director of the Center for the Study of Women and Society, describes the damaging impact of this ‘color-blindness’—

Within this potential erasure neoliberalism plays a perverted race card, in that by rejecting race, formerly racialized ‘‘others’’ can be fully incorporated as consumptive citizens with no racial barriers to their participation in the economy. Neoliberalism, then, willfully misconstrues and dismisses the reality of racism as a powerful explanatory factor in analyzing persistent racial inequities.

This is a rather uncomfortable deflection in the welfare and post-welfare reform era as racism and racial disparities are not easily indicted as racist, the implication being that people suffer no particular harm. Under neoliberal racism the relevance of the raced subject, racial identity and racism is subsumed under the auspices of meritocracy. For in a neoliberal society, individuals are supposedly freed from identity and operate under the limiting assumption that hard work will be rewarded if the game is played according to the rules. Consequently, any impediments to success are attributed to personal flaws. This attribution affirms notions of neutrality and silences claims of racializing and racism.125

These surface-deep policy positions have come to define the Democratic party-approved resistance to Republican policy. As political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. points out—

Why does this tailing behind an increasingly right-of-center Democratic Party persist in the absence of any apparent payoff? There has nearly always been a qualifying excuse: Republicans control the White House; they control Congress; they’re strong enough to block progressive initiatives even if they don’t control either the executive or the legislative branch. Thus have the faithful been able to take comfort in the circular self-evidence of their conviction. Each undesirable act by a Republican administration is eo ipso evidence that if the Democratic candidate had won, things would have been much better. When Democrats have been in office, the imagined omnipresent threat from the Republican bugbear remains a fatal constraint on action and a pretext for suppressing criticism from the left.126

The Clinton presidency encapsulated today’s Democratic policy positions as they exist on the spectrum defined by corporate conservatives. The 42nd president had a penchant for supporting the sort of policies which would be useful if all Americans looked the same and began with the same quality of life in all respects. Reed, again—

Bill Clinton’s record demonstrates, if anything, the extent of Reaganism’s victory in defining the terms of political debate and the limits of political practice. A recap of some of his administration’s greatest hits should suffice to break through the social amnesia. Clinton ran partly on a pledge of “ending welfare as we know it”; in office he both presided over the termination of the federal government’s sixty-year commitment to provide income support for the poor and effectively ended direct federal provision of low-income housing. In both cases his approach was to transfer federal subsidies — when not simply eliminating them — from impoverished people to employers of low-wage labor, real estate developers, and landlords. He signed into law repressive crime bills that increased the number of federal capital offenses, flooded the prisons, and upheld unjustified and racially discriminatory sentencing disparities for crack and powder cocaine. He pushed NAFTA through over strenuous objections from labor and many congressional Democrats. He temporized on his campaign pledge to pursue labor-law reform that would tilt the playing field back toward workers, until the Republican takeover of Congress in 1995 gave him an excuse not to pursue it at all. He undertook the privatization of Sallie Mae, the Student Loan Marketing Association, thereby fueling the student-debt crisis.

Notwithstanding his administration’s Orwellian folderol about “reinventing government,” his commitment to deficit reduction led to, among other things, extending privatization of the federal meat-inspection program, which shifted responsibility to the meat industry — a reinvention that must have pleased his former Arkansas patron, Tyson Foods, and arguably has left its legacy in the sporadic outbreaks and recalls that suggest deeper, endemic problems of food safety in the United States. His approach to health-care reform, like Barack Obama’s, was built around placating the insurance and pharmaceutical industries, and its failure only intensified the blitzkrieg of for-profit medicine…

It is difficult to imagine that a Republican administration could have been much more successful in advancing Reaganism’s agenda…

But if the left is tied to a Democratic strategy that, at least since the Clinton Administration, tries to win elections by absorbing much of the right’s social vision and agenda, before long the notion of a political left will have no meaning. For all intents and purposes, that is what has occurred. If the right sets the terms of debate for the Democrats, and the Democrats set the terms of debate for the left, then what can it mean to be on the political left? The terms “left” and “progressive”—and in practical usage the latter is only a milquetoast version of the former—now signify a cultural sensibility rather than a reasoned critique of the existing social order. Because only the right proceeds from a clear, practical utopian vision, “left” has come to mean little more than “not right.” 126

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Hillary Clinton and then-CEO of Goldman Sachs, Lloyd Blankfein in 2014 127


The US is to an unusual extent a business-run society, where short-term concerns of profit and market share displace rational planning.

Noam Chomsky


Collective Action for Intercommunality

The intersectionality of the issues of a person’s class, race, wealth, and healthcare access are highlighted by the varying hospitalization and mortality rates of different demographics. Relatedly, the influence of capital on so many aspects of American governance is increasingly a competing interest to human life.

Nearly all aspects of American life are defined and circumscribed by the Neoliberal dogma of the accumulation and utilization of wealth within the bounds of market-focused regulation. Critically though, some aspects that American law exists to protect are simply more resilient than others, because their damages cannot be remediated.

The collapse, or subsidence, of land areas resulting from groundwater pumping, is virtually irreversible.128 Carelessness or malfunction when mining lead can result in toxic acid mine drainage into groundwater, a virtually impossible to reverse process.129

Low levels of neonatal, prenatal, or pediatric exposure to lead can quickly cause untreatable, irreversible damage to the brain.130 One’s death attributed to their unwillingness to go to the hospital without health insurance is of course irreversible. Loss of species through damage to habitats, climate change, and poaching is irreversible.

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Moreover, the trichloroethylene in Woburn did not care what the human consuming it looked like. Nor did the benzene in the Love Canal, arsenic in the Aberjona, or petroleum in Chelsea Creek. What is the measure of incremental ecological progress on a continuum with an initial baseline of a career coal lobbyist in Andrew Wheeler as the head environmental enforcement? Will climate change bend to, or allow for, incremental regulatory reform?

When the establishment political parties and cable news media work in lock step to manufacture consent into the narrow bounds of discourse that exist between a presidential cabinet of lobbyists who spent their careers advocating for the deregulation of the agencies they are appointed to oversee, and an opposition whose cabinets are made up of careerists who only took those lobbyists’ campaign funds, the rate of deterioration of the United States’ air and water quality clearly outpaces policy enactment.

Communities are not affected by environmental destruction homogenously, nor at the same pace. When one side of the argument has so much more to lose which cannot be regained, those on that side of the argument have no reason to ask for mere compromise, nor for incremental change. Many of the existing environmental protections which have originated at the federal level are often only in response to the most conspicuous environmental disasters throughout American history.115

Meanwhile, the influence of corporate contributors and the theme of revolving door regulatory appointments has only increased in the past two decades, with the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opening the flood gates for unlimited corporate expenditures towards voter influence, and the Court’s McCutcheon v FEC decision, removing the cap individuals could contribute overall to federal candidates, parties and PACs during a two-year period.131 Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have been the only two major presidential candidates to buck that trend in recent years.

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Source: Stephanie Herman, GEKE.US132

This highlights the critical role played by community organizing, such as that by GreenRoots and the Chelsea Collaborative in Chelsea, by For A Cleaner Environment in Woburn, and the Love Canal Homeowners Association in Niagara Falls, New York. Local action has strongly influenced federal activities, and has the capacity to help define the federal environmental regulatory agenda.

More broadly, Dr. Denis Salles of France’s National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and the Environment (INRAE) presents a further diagnose in his brilliant publication Responsibility-based Environmental Governance

The progressive withdrawal of the state over the last three decades goes hand in hand with a transfer of responsibility and arbitrage from the state to individuals (user-citizen-consumer) in the name of the governance principles called upon by globalization and the liberalization of commercial exchanges. Following that logic, public authorities would assume the role of prescribing norms, guide individual choices and increasingly control private as well as public choices and their consequence on the collectivity.

Thus, the principle of responsibility and the mechanisms of responsibility transfer observed in the field of the environment, which has become “everybody’s business”, converge with an ideology of autonomy of individuals with respect to socializing institutions and with a discourse on the valorization of self-regulation of individual behavior and the liberating power of the individual’s ability to determine their life-choices.121

Salles offers valuable insights regarding recalibrating governmental institutions to elecit behaviors of equality rather than individualism, and in doing so, better protect the planet from damaging practices—

If the progress of individualism is seen as a historical step in the modernization of societies, and not reduced to a product of neoliberal ideology, but seen as a democratic asset which elevates the social individual equipped with a capacity for reflection, criticism and autonomy, then this leads to an increased political status of individual responsibility. This concept of an active responsibility, rather granted to than burdened upon the individual, brings him to constantly question the meaning of his practices with regards to their intended consequences and to the perverse side effects of their behavior. Responsibility then acts as the ‘moral correction mechanism of individualism. It is the limit beyond which one cannot afford to be purely individualistic… Individualism and society are not contradictory, the contrary is true.’133

The concept of a ‘shared responsibility’ displaces the paradigm of pure domination, which considers responsibility as a consequence of an egoistic or imposed individualism and as a vehicle of neoliberal ideology. Most scientific investigations underline the importance of economic and cultural determinants crucial for the adoption of new social practices less harmful to the environment. The hesitancy to move on to action stems from the difficulty of putting alternative practices into place, such as different transport modes, waste recycling or energy and water savings in an environment ruled by the constraints of the organization of labor, lifestyle and consumption modes. Environmental practices are economically and socially dependent on more immediate needs, for example commuting to the workplace, school or shopping centers. In order to better understand the question of responsibility in the environmental field, it seems preferable to see the different interpretations as complementary, rather than as mutually exclusive, in an open and pluralistic attitude towards the process of responsibility transfer.134

In a hypothetical ecosystem with laws of physics bound by the tenets of a market-based economy, the Mystic River’s water would not flow from Woburn to Winchester to Medford to Everett to Chelsea, as it would respect municipal boundaries. In such an ecosystem, the water that rained on the IndustriPlex would not drain into the Aberjona River’s drainage basin and then into the Mystic River, as it would respect property lines.

If in such an ecosystem there existed an egalitarian society, wherein no person experienced homelessness, faced inordinate social or physical obstacles attributable to the prejudices held by others; where no family drank from a water supply contaminated with carcinogens, endured a barrage of corporate marketing campaigns conveying the subjective as objective, or were governed under regulatory institutions architected to sustain the aforementioned inequalities, then perhaps a society built as ours has been built would suffice.

But amid the economic inequality, accumulated environmental destruction, and racial opportunity disparities found today within the Mystic River Watershed, there is finite time afforded to advocate for something more.

 

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