In February 1986 Jonathan Harr met with a lawyer named Jan Schlichtmann and his partners and it was agreed that he would be allowed to follow the events of a major lawsuit as an observer on the inside. Schlichtmann was representing the families of 12 children, all of whom had died because of leukemia, from a small town called Woburn, Massachusetts. The parents of these children, who all lived within a half mile radius of each other, suspected that the leukemia was a direct result of drinking contaminated water from two city wells. The children fell ill between 1969 and 1979 with the wells finally being shut down in 1979.
The case, labeled an 'orphan', had been passed between many law firms and it was Anne Anderson, mother of Jimmy Anderson who had died from leukemia, who contacted Schlichtmann and his colleagues about undertaking the case. Schlichtmann sat on the case for many years convinced that the case could not be won.
However, after some reluctant investigation Schlichtmann determined that W. R. Grace, Inc and the J.J. Riley tannery, a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods may have contaminated the wells through their industrial practices.
The water in Woburn had always been the topic of debate. Residents claimed that the water tasted of chlorine and some were convinced that it had 'rotted out the pipes' in their homes. The affected families sued Grace and Beautrice for damages on the grounds that they had been exposed to the chemical trichloroethylene (TCE). Attention had first been drawn to TCE when an Environmental Health Officer had run some routine tests at the wells and had discovered elevated levels of the chemical. At the time the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had TCE listed as a 'probable carcinogen'.
Over the next four years Schlichtmann and his...