Symbol of Woburn, MA’s Painful Past, W.R. Grace Co. Facility, Demolished

Fri September 01, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Jay Lindsay

WOBURN, MA (AP) Piles of concrete rubble and twisted metal beams are all that remain of a monument to Woburn’s worst days.

The W.R. Grace Co. building that long occupied this lot, just off one of the state’s busiest highways, was demolished in August, removing a prominent symbol of a groundwater contamination case that brought this community a lingering infamy and sadness.

“I’m glad it’s gone,” said City Councilor Darlene Mercer-Bruen.

W.R. Grace, which made machines at the site, was among the companies sued by eight Woburn families in 1982 for polluting groundwater and allegedly causing leukemia in seven children and one adult. Grace settled the case in 1986 for $8 million without admitting wrongdoing and vacated the 85,000-sq.-ft. building two years later.

The ensuing years brought a best-selling book, “A Civil Action,” and a movie starring John Travolta. Meanwhile, the building sat fallow on its weedy acres, a reminder of the city’s grief. “I live a football field away,” Mercer-Bruen said. “Every time you drive by it, as somebody who grew up in Woburn, that’s what you’d think of.”

The 12-acre property is now being refurbished and will be leased from W.R. Grace by French sporting goods retailer Decathlon. The company plans a 78,000-sq.-ft. retail center, along with up to 17,000 sq. ft. of office space.

Recently, the City Council in Woburn, approximately 10 mi. northwest of Boston, approved a zoning change that propelled the project ahead. Months of permitting and debate over mitigating traffic remain, but Decathlon U.S. Chief Financial Officer Jean-Marc Lemiere said the company is aiming for an April groundbreaking.

Donna Robbins, whose family sued after her son Robbie died in 1981 of leukemia, said it’s good the building is gone because of the bad memories associated with it. But she doesn’t want anyone to forget what happened in Woburn, where she still lives, so that the city remains vigilant about whom it allows to do business there.

“I hope it never goes away for anybody,”’ she said.

Woburn has a long industrial history and a pride that’s reflected in the name of its high school sports teams, called the Tanners in honor of the city’s prolific leather workers. But the thriving industry came with a cost. The city has two Superfund sites after chemical contamination fouled city groundwater, and it will be years before the pollution is cleaned up.

No conclusive link was ever drawn between discarded chemicals and the leukemia, but in 1990 W.R. Grace was among five companies, including Beatrice Foods Co. and John Riley Co. tannery, that agreed to clean up hundreds of acres in East Woburn at a cost the EPA estimated would be approximately $70 million.

The agreement didn’t bring an end to the fears or unwanted notoriety in Woburn, whose problems made national news. Jack Marlowe, a lifelong resident and president of the Woburn Redevelopment Authority, recalled being ribbed at a local club when his Woburn origins were discovered by a comedian, who asked, “Why aren’t you glowing?”

“It got to the point when people would ask where you were from, I’d mumble,” he said.

For residents there was the pain of watching their neighbor’s children suffer, as well as uncertainty about their own safety, Marlowe said.

“People couldn’t comprehend what was really happening,” he said. “Ten years later, people would say, is the water safe yet?”

As the clean-up proceeded, the one-story brick W.R. Grace building remained as Columbia, MD-based Grace retained ownership of the site, just off Routes 128 and 93.

The location was a key factor in drawing Decathlon. The property’s history of contamination is “absolutely not” a concern, Lemiere said. The company’s environmental experts have signed off on the project, he said, and the Environmental Protection Agency will remain to monitor the groundwater clean-up until the problem is solved.

The property today is bounded by a chain link fence. Yellow metal poles — some wrapped in orange tape that reads “Danger” — mark the wells that extract the water for treatment. The area where the Grace building stood has been replaced by graded dirt. A worn warehouse at the rear of the property, watched by a security guard patrolling in a pickup, was the last major structure still standing early this week.

Though she welcomed the demolition, Robbins said it won’t have much effect on her. She said she stays in Woburn mainly because her son is buried there. Her decision comes at a price of daily reminders of his death in places her son was — or will never be — that are nowhere near the Grace property.

“Everywhere you go,” she said, “there’s bitter reminders.”

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