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The 12-acre property is now being refurbished and will be leased from W.R. Grace by French sporting goods retailer Decathlon.
The 12-acre property is now being refurbished and will be leased from W.R. Grace by French sporting goods retailer Decathlon. (Chitose Suzuki/ Associated Press)

Symbol of a painful past is razed in Woburn

WOBURN -- 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 this month, removing a prominent symbol of a ground-water contamination case that brought this community a lingering 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 ground water 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-square-foot 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. 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-square-foot retail center, along with up to 17,000 square feet of office space.

The City Council in Woburn, about 10 miles northwest of Boston, has approved a zoning change that propelled the project ahead. Months of permitting and debate over mitigating traffic remain, but Decathlon USA 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 there were a lot of bad memories associated with the building. 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 nearly $70 million .

The agreement did not 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?"

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