By a jury vote of 8-5, the 15th annual reenactment of a landmark groundwater contamination trial led to a “Not Guilty” verdict for the second year in a row. “This year’s Civil Action mock trial verdict followed a trend established last year, in which the defendants presented a very strong alternative origin of Trichloroethylene (TCE) in city wells G and H,” said Bill Simpkins, hydrogeology professor in the Department of Geological and Atmospheric Science, who manages the annual event. “The defendants presented the long history of industrial activity in the watershed to show other potentially responsible parties for the contamination. They countered the expert witness testimony for the plaintiffs, particularly that of Dr. Willamena Simpkins, portrayed by senior geology major Brittany Theilen.” Each year, Simpkins’ senior/graduate level hydrogeology class reenacts the 1986 trial that later became a Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction book and motion picture titled, “A Civil Action.” In the real-life drama, parents of eight Woburn, Massachusetts children accused three companies of polluting the groundwater that supplied drinking water for the town. The TCE-contaminated water drawn from Woburn municipal wells is suspected to have caused the leukemia that caused the death of the eight children. In real life, the case was settled out of court before it went to the jury.
The trial reinforces concepts from the class, including groundwater hydrology, velocity, and travel time; groundwater flowpath analysis; well hydraulics, and groundwater-stream interaction. This year’s 26 students assumed the roles of attorneys and expert witnesses, including geology and hydrology experts. According to Simpkins, the trial is a great learning experience, an excellent group project, and a successful capstone for the course. A few other universities do similar reenactments, but Simpkins’ version is the only one that is implemented in a senior/graduate-level course. In the 17 trials that have occurred, the plaintiffs lead 10.5 to 6.5 (2014 yielded a hung jury).