The novel and movie A Civil Action provide a look at the legal and the ethical issues associated with Superfund. The concepts of groundwater, contamination and plume are reinforced in some of the movie frames, which can be used in short clips for class discussions.
Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., is perhaps our country’s most notorious hazardous waste site. It wasn’t the first or the worst – but in 1979, the heavy contamination at Love Canal, and subsequent environmental health risk in the community, caused President Jimmy Carter to issue a state of emergency for the town. Over 300 families were then moved from their homes. Love Canal spurred scientists, industry leaders, government officials, and grassroots activists to take a stand and act on behalf of our environment. In 1980, immediately following the Love Canal disaster, Congress asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to create the Superfund program to help address the containment and cleanup of toxic wastes that had been buried long ago.
Since Love Canal, hundreds of toxic sites have been discovered around the nation. Environmental groups, communities, and the media have continued to bring the problem of hazardous waste contamination to our attention. More recently, books and popular movies have tried to address these real-life issues.
One such story is called A Civil Action. Author Jonathan Harr gave us a compelling nonfiction account of a hazardous waste site that affected the children in the community of Woburn, Mass. While the book may be advanced for students in grades 6-8, the Hollywood movie, starring John Travolta, can provide students with a simplified visual/auditory account of the Woburn disaster and an introduction to the issues surrounding environmental justice.
You are to play the role of environmental scientists who are being presented with information on a new case of potential water contamination by hazardous waste. Watch the film to collect some background information on the situation. This information will be used to make some decisions about how we as scientists might begin to help this community. As you watch the film, record the information you think might be important for discussion in your science notebooks. The questions below progress chronologically beginning with Mr. Schlichtmann’s radio interview.
1. What is the problem? Who is affected by the problem? Who is now involved?
2. What are some things that you already know about the case? Be careful not to confuse
things that we know with things that we assume. Is it a nuisance or negligence? Explain.
9. After reviewing available information on the case, do you believe that the pollution from
industrial sources was responsible for the problems at Woburn? Justify your answer.
What would you do if you were the lawyer – take the case or not? What factors would
you use to help make your decision?