The Common Good
January-February 1999

The Children's Funeral Parish

by Joe Nangle | January-February 1999

Early in the 1980s, I served a parish in Woburn, Massachusetts. This suburban city,
some 12 miles north of Boston, had boasted of tanneries for 300 years.

Early in the 1980s, I served a parish in Woburn, Massachusetts. This suburban city, some 12 miles north of Boston, had boasted of tanneries for 300 years. Other companies supplied the chemicals for the tanneries, so Woburn never lacked for industry. In more recent times the W.R. Grace Co., a transnational conglomerate, built a small plant in the city.

Beginning in the '60s an unusual number of leukemia cases, especially among children, surfaced in Woburn. In one part of the city, the incidence of the disease was at least seven times greater than average. During my short service in the city, the people described their church as "the children's funeral parish." One family in the community I served, the Toomeys, had lost one young son in a car accident. Their second son, 10-year-old Patrick, contracted leukemia in 1979 and died sometime later. Despite these tragedies, Dick and Mary Toomey, the parents of these children, decided to stay in their hometown. Dick died of a malignant melanoma in 1990.

A 1995 book, Jonathan Harr's A Civil Action, outlined in great detail the efforts of a lawyer and his associates, together with the parents and neighbors of the dead and dying children, to prove in court what they already knew—that one of the tanneries and W.R. Grace Co. had caused water pollution and consequently the many cases of leukemia by dumping toxic waste into the ground near their factories.

The lengths to which these companies went to avoid, obstruct, forestall, and overturn legal judgments against them provides truly horrifying reading. It reminds one of latter-day efforts by cigarette companies similarly to evade responsibility for their irresponsible, or at best ignorant, actions that result in enormous harm to innocent people. A Civil Action is a very small sampling of what has happened in the last decades through the virtually unbridled activities of national and multinational corporations.

THE ECOLOGICAL COMMUNITY, including its human members, has suffered incalculable harm from these giants. And there seems to be no checking them. For some 20 years, intense efforts have been under way to reverse the trends of environmental despoilment. Studies, environmental reporting and consulting, laws, and governmental institutions have tried to get a handle on the corporate monsters who are guilty of the devastation wreaked on our water, land, and air. And with what result?

A 1995 study of nine industrialized countries in this 20-year period by the Washington, D.C.-based National Center for Economic and Security Alternatives gives a disheartening report card. All indicators point to a growing, not a lessening, deterioration of air, land, and water quality in each of the countries surveyed, due mainly to the increased use of chemicals and the discharge of wastes. And virtually all of the deterioration resulted from the direct and indirect activities of giant companies. Factors in the study such as nuclear waste, industrial chemicals, and pollution from automobiles, point directly to impersonal and outsized corporations whose souls can be found only in the accounting department. The tragedy in all of this is the almost total lack of the means to put a leash on these faceless monsters. Where are the institutions, the laws, the governance that can curb a W.R. Grace when it decides to dump disease into the drinking water of children in a place like Woburn? The United Nations? The World Court? The Congress of the United States? Not at this moment in history.

This near-total lack of accountability has to challenge and call forth qualified social activists who value the environmental community we call Mother Earth. Expertise must be generated to establish correctives and controls over national and transnational corporations. It is not an exaggeration to say that the very life of the planet—our first community—is at stake.

JOE NANGLE, OFM, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C. This column is the third in a series on community in its broadest sense—the environment

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