Talking Pictures

Science Class

A Civil Action

By David Templeton

David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he summons Keith O’Brien–an esteemed hydrogeologist and sought-after expert witness–to see the popular environmental courtroom drama A Civil Action.

Keith O’Brien saunters purposefully down the aisle, leading the way to a seat at the approximate center of the theater. He is tall, gray-haired and distinguished in appearance. As soon as we’ve settled into our seats, a woman’s voice calls out from behind.

“Hey, O’Brien! Down in front!” My guest, it seems, has been recognized. He pivots around to see who it is. One of O’Brien’s many colleagues, a fellow hydrogeologist–though they work for competing Bay Area environmental consulting firms–is sitting three rows back.

“Too bad you’re not closer,” suggests the interloper. “I could throw popcorn at you.”

For the next few minutes, these two respected scientists–each an expert in the field of groundwater remediation (the testing and treatment of contaminated underground water sources)–pass the time tossing playful barbs back and forth. Fortunately, before the verbal jousting evolves into an full-scale free-for-all, the lights dim and the movie begins.

A Civil Action, starring John Travolta and Robert Duvall as lawyers slugging it out in a multi-million dollar court case, is something of a cause celebré among our nation’s highly-specialized cadre of groundwater contamination specialists. Though probably not the demographic Disney had in mind when they grabbed the rights to Jonathan Harr’s best-selling book, these hydro-professionals have a right to be excited; it isn’t often that Hollywood makes a big-budget film in which their industry, or the subject of groundwater, is even mentioned–and then along comes a flick in which underground agua is practically the star of the show.

Both the book and the film are based on a real-life 1980’s lawsuit, in which eight families from the tiny town of Woburn, Massachusetts sued Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, a pair of Goliath-like corporations with manufacturing plants near Woburn. The families claimed that acetone, T.C.E., and other toxic chemicals, illegally dumped on corporate property, had seeped into the groundwater and worked their way into the town’s drinking water supply–ultimately resulting in the leukemia deaths of several of their children. As in the movie, the lawyer who represented the families, Jan Schlictman (Travolta), ended up losing his cars, his house and ultimately his practice, after spending millions on groundwater studies, expert witnesses, and scientific research. That research–the same type that is O’Brien’s stock in trade–eventually provided the evidence needed for the Environmental Protection Agency to come down hard on the negligent corporations, finally forcing them to clean up their mess.

With O’Brien’s considerable experience and expertise in the field, he has become a much sought-after expert witness such cases, having worked on over 100 environmental contamination lawsuits in the course of the last ten years. It is often O’Brien’s view of the truth that will shape a lawyer’s entire case.

“Not that the court system has anything to do with the truth,” he observes with a laugh, on our way out of the theater. (We are successful, by the way, in avoiding further jovial antagonism from any of O’Brien’s associates. No popcorn was ever launched)

“After 10 years of working with lawyers,” he continues a few minutes later, sipping a beer at a nearby restaurant, “I have to say that I don’t have a lot of trust left in the judicial system. These days I tend to steer my clients toward the rough justice of mediation, where they can avoid all the shenanigans that go on in court, and can settle their disputes without having to spend a lot of money.

“When I first started doing it, I thought, ‘Great! This is terrific! I’m going to go out there and tell people how it really is, and I’ll get to change the world, and …’ you know, ‘Truth, Justice, and the American Way will win out over Evil.’ But it’s not that way. It’s discouraging. I used to do a lot more litigation work, but now I turn down more cases than I take.”

“So the movie was accurate?” I ask, thinking of the “shenanigans” that led to Schlictman’s case dragging on for over a decade.

“Yes, but only gives a taste of what really goes on,” O’Brien replies. “We saw some of the depositions, long before they went to trial, where Schlictman was yelling at everyone, and the experts were all sitting around with the lawyers. That was very realistic, but it’s usually even wilder. It’s a free-for-all, where guys are leaning across the table, shouting and spitting at one another. It’s hair-raising. You can sit there for hours, and the information you have to tell never gets out, nothing substantive is ever said.”

“And as for the science aspects of this particular case …” I remark. “Well, the scientific jargon was presented as if science was some bizarre language made of code words and incomprehensible gibberish.”

“The movie says, in fact, that no one, not even scientists, can understand it,” he replies. “But there really wasn’t much science in the movie. We saw a quick series of shots where they were outside digging monitoring wells near the contamination site, and some people carrying samples of water around. And then the expert witness in the court room with all those charts and elaborate models. But all that stuff was just mumbo jumbo to the average movie-goer.”

“One thing I think the people will take away from the movie,” I add, “is a serious fear of their drinking water. Whether they were made to understand the science of it or not, it was clear that water might contain all kinds of toxins and things that seeped in from elsewhere.”

“Absolutely,” he nods. “I think water companies are going to get so many phone calls after this, with people saying, ‘I just want to know how frequently you test the water, and what is in the water and all that kind of stuff.’ It will probably boost the sales of bottled water.

“It’s not like these kinds of event–like the one depicted in Woborn–aren’t happening all the time,” he continues. “They are happening today. T.C.E., of course, is a major concern, but also things like MTBE, which has been a huge problem lately. It was just last summer that there were headlines in the City of Riverside’s newspaper, in Southern California. ‘Don’t drink your water!’ That was the headline. I was just trying to imagine what that must have been like. You’ve got your coffee, you’re drinking it and you go out to pick up your newspaper, and you open it up and read, ‘Don’t drink your water,’ so you take another sip of coffee–and then you realize: this isn’t coffee. This is water that’s been run through a coffee machine.”

“I doubt this film will attract many people to the legal profession,” I note. “But do you think it will it draw anyone to the hydrogeological fields?”

“Probably not,” he shrugs. “But it may boost the sales of bottle water.”

Web extra to the January 21-27, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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