Thursday, March 25, 2010

Toxic Legacy: A History of Negligence

By Jon Lindenauer

The 1998 film “A Civil Action” directed by Steven Zaillian, was inspired by the true story of a water contamination lawsuit involving the chemical companies Unifirst and W.R. Grace (a subsidiary of Beatrice Foods) and families of Woburn, Massachusetts. The lawsuit was called Anderson v. Cryovac and was a landmark in legal actions taken by citizens affected by the pollution of a major corporation in their region. However, even with a vast array of evidence supporting their case against the three companies, the families and their lawyers proved unable to defeat the corporations in a legal setting, with an $8 million settlement out of court being their closest achievement to victory.

The Anderson v. Cryovac case began in February 1986, spanning 79 days and was followed by numerous appeals and associated cases against other culpable parties and gained nationwide attention. Unfortunately, in a tragic case of history mirroring more recent history, disturbingly similar events have unfolded in Ringwood, New Jersey where neglected pollutants left behind by a no-longer-present Ford Motor plant have wrought havoc on the residents for the better part of three decades. Again, despite abundant evidence to support their claims, reparations and a satisfactory clean-up effort have come slowly and with an unbelievably high degree of difficulty.

As with the lawsuit against Unifirst and W.R. Grace, monetary compensation has been awarded to many families. However, it is doubtful that families who have lost parents or spouses or children to illnesses related to the careless disposal of chemical waste will find absolution in any kind of fiscal compensation. Also adding insult to injury is the fact that decades after the issue has been forcefully pressed to the attention of the Ford Motor company, the proper measures to decontaminate the area have yet to be taken; and after so many years of the pollution settling into the soil, rock deposits and water sources it is highly implausible that any efforts could be taken to adequately clear the area of the currently harbored toxins.

These two examples are obviously not the only instances of large corporations doing unspeakable ecological and biological damage to a community. The food industry perpetrates crimes of this nature on a daily basis, so much so that the infrastructures major food conglomerates are based upon would crumble if actions were taken to PREVENT the biological and environmental damage they are allowed to get away with due to a horrifyingly relaxed monitoring system. Regrettably, powerful corporations – be they in the food or chemical industry - will do anything to blur the line between what is inside and outside their jurisdiction and what horrible afflictions caused by their productions could feasibly be caused by minute outside forces. Tragically, as a society that prides itself on the prospect of attaining a seemingly infinite accumulation of financial power, the individuals who embody the realization of that goal are able to avoid penalty for some of the most despicable acts inflicted on unsuspecting American citizens. But who will listen to the victim when everyone is – to varying degrees – invested in the victimizer?

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