Ground Water in the Public Eye and Ethics:

"A Civil Action", "Erin Brockovich", etc.: Hydrogeology as Forensic Science, Ethics in this Field, Safety of Ground Water, and How that can be Assured

The movie "A CIVIL ACTION" of a number of years ago (loosely based on the book of the same title), concerning the trial to gain compensation for families in a cancer cluster in Woburn, Massachusetts, and incidentally to determine causes of responsibility for contamination of public wells in Woburn), has resurfaced some issues in ground water safety, how hydrogeologic science is used in a forensic sense, and spun off some discussions on ethics in hydrogeologic science. Plus, after Enron, Arthur Anderson, Woldcom, etc. how do you know that the consulting firm you may hire is professionally and financially ethical and not a pawn to a larger, unethical corporation? All this spawned a flurry of courses, seminars, and discussions (see links provided).

The movie "ERIN BROCKOVICH" (2000) regarding ground water contamination in California (the case was Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric), is basically "average citizen beats Town Hall". The main character, Erin Brockovich, portrayed by Julia Roberts, keeps the story moving on the windy road to justice – the uncovered water test results buried deep in the Department of Water, the bureaucrats who liked it that way, the court system, the small law firm, the families who became sick... and the smoking gun which tied the corporate liability to headquarters and led to the largest court settlement of its kind in US legal history." See links. The NGWA solicited comments on the issues it raised back when the movie came out.

Any doubt about hydrogeologic professional ethics such as may have been raised by "A Civil Action" is especially chilling, because hydrogeology deals largely with the unseen, so you end up having to take what your hydrogeologists say on faith. Also – what does that say about some of us when a law clerk with a lot of social problems, instead of ground water professionals, blew the PG&E Hinckley, CA case? And what about business ethics and conflict of interest?

It really is up to hydrogeologists to demonstrate that (1) what they do is important and (2) they are worthy of trust and confidence. If you have doubts about the safety of your ground water source, or want to make sure it stays safe:

  • As a water well user or water supplier: valid hydrogeologic study should be a part of your plans.
  • As a water customer, it is worth taking note of all the improvements in regulation of water quality and in the science of ground water analysis since the events recounted in "A Civil Action" (which occurred in the "Stone Age" of contaminant hydrogeology). For example, as sad as the story in Woburn is, and how neat it is to have villains, newer work tends to discredit the concept that W.R. Grace was the primary culprit. Beatrice may have been an early contributor, as were others. We have to let the science (valid science) do the talking - not the carpet-bagger lawyers.
  • If you are a government scientist or regulator (in other words, a Public Servant in our system), shame on you if you hide contamination problems and bless you if you bring them to light.
  • As a customer, user, and concerned citizen (not merely a “consumer”), we suggest you become active in the protection of your ground water supply source.

Professional Ethics: While we here at Ground Water Science are consulting professionals who work for clients for fees (and we like to be busy and paid). However, we do not compromise our purpose as scientists, which is to discover truth within our capabilities. We do not slant or intentionally prejudge our work. Partners Stuart Smith and Allen Comeskey adhere to the code of professional ethics of our respective certifications (NGWA CGWP and AIPG CPG), and we are each personally committed to impartial, rigorous science. You will find that the vast majority of ground water scientists in private practice are similarly principled. If you have doubts, check around.

The NGWA "Canons of Professional Practice for the Ground Water Profession" (CGWP code of ethics):

  1. Perform services only in their area of competence.
  2. Use their knowledge and skill for the enhancement of human welfare.
  3. Serve the public, their employers and their clients honestly, objectively and impartially.
  4. Avoid conflicts of interest.
  5. Act as faithful agents or trustees in professional matters for each employer or client.
  6. Strive to uphold and enhance the honor, integrity, dignity, competence and prestige of the ground water profession.
  7. Maintain their competence current through continuing professional development.

The American Institute for Professional Geology (AIPG) has a lengthier and well-formed code of ethics.

Business Ethics and conflict of interest:

Even ethical, professional, dedicated consulting professionals can find themselves answering to higher corporate powers who may be dedicated only to the bottom line or the stockholders, or stuck in conflict of interest situations. As for Ground Water Science:

  1. We are privately owned and operated by the owners, and not owned or obligated in any way to another corporation, holding company, etc.
  2. Conflict of interest can be difficult to avoid entirely. If we have a business relationship that may affect our ability to serve you, we will tell you.
  3. We adhere to the above professional ethics - and what our parents, Sunday School teachers, and dedicated colleagues and mentors have taught us over the years. We answer to a VERY GREAT Higher Power.

Links for more information:

More information on hydrogeological analysis at

Here are some links related specifically to the topics of "A Civil Action" (more below on Erin Brockovich):

  • The Ohio State University has conducted research on and has information on the Woburn trial and its issues with pictures. More work done recently by OSU graduate students has resulted in some impressive modeling of source and dose relationships with perhaps some surprising or upsetting results.
  • Harvard Law School Lessons from the Woburn Project -- Numerous resources.
  • USEPA Region 1 (New England)'s Superfund home page. Follow links or search for "Woburn" to find USEPA information on the affected wells (G and H) and background.
  • USGS information site on "Civil Action" topics and USGS toxic substances in ground water page.
  • W.R. Grace Co. had an information site ( to present its point of view. As of the current edit, this site is now down. If you run across its replacement, let us know. It included additional information the company says is overlooked in the book and movie. For example, it is well-known that Woburn was home to industrial activity, including tanning, insecticide production and other industries that produce toxic byproducts. Interesting note that the site of wells G and H was reportedly contaminated before 1958, and W.R. Grace started operations at Woburn in 1960.
  • Various bookstores and online sources you know stock the book.

"Erin Brockovich" (Anderson v. Pacific Gas & Electric) links:

If you would like to suggest links for this page or provide other feedback, please contact Stuart. This area of interest in film is now occupied by "fracking" and we comment on that now, too.

Ground Water Science offers information on and conducts rigorous hydrogeologic investigations