Water Rights and A Civil Action (1998): A Riparian Dilemma
Water has been considered a natural right around in the world and treated as a usufructary right for thousands of years. Such a right gives temporary possession and enjoyment to those who use water, as long as that use does not cause damage or change it. According to this perspective, water can be used but not owned. The Riparian Doctrine clarifies this natural right. As economist Zachary Donohew explains, because water is typically seen as a usufructary right, rivers and streams cannot be owned but their water can be accessed by those who live and work beside their banks (90). Although current riparian principles draw on private ownership to define reasonable water use, the doctrine primarily applies to public riparian lands, as activist Vandana Shiva notes in her discussion of communal water use in Colorado’s Rio Grande Valley (27). The Riparian Doctrine still prevails in much of the Eastern United States because water is much more abundant there than in the Western states, but it also serves as a guiding principle for community rights and water democracies in India (Shiva 29), which hold that “Water is a commons…. It cannot be owned as private property and sold as a commodity” (36).
Both fictional features and documentaries with water at their center draw on the tenets of the Riparian Doctrine. Westerns such as The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) emphasize riparian principles, especially in relation to the Desert Land Act, but contemporary feature films also draw on riparian ideals, which, in these cases, are in conflict with the Clean Water Act and its roots in human approaches to ecology. In A Civil Action (1998), for example, “reasonable use” is under question. The film explores whether or not those who used the same water source as does a leather tanning company were adversely affected by the company’s water use. Although the film primarily centers on Jan Schlichtmann’s (John Travolta) failed attempts to sue both Beatrice and W.R. Grace, he ultimately proves that the tannery these companies manage dumped silicone and trichloroethylene (TCE), toxic waste that contaminated a town’s water supply and caused multiple cancers in its townspeople.
In A Civil Action, attorney Schlichtmann investigates a case that revolves around a woman whose son had died of leukemia two years before, along with more than a dozen other townspeople, and the city’s drinking water is blamed. The townspeople seem unaware of the source of this water pollution, but Schlichtmann discovers a tannery connected with W.R. Grace is dumping toxins into the river beside the factory. He meets representatives of Beatrice Foods and W.R. Grace, and since they have big pockets, the lawsuit begins. Schlichtmann’s investigation is meant to determine that silicone and trichloroethylene (TCE) were dumped into the water supply by the tannery and causing the cancers in townspeople. Ultimately, Schlictmann and his law firm settle with both Grace and Beatrice, but Schlichtmann also sends his case files to the EPA, including a report from a worker who witnessed the cleanup that proves toxic waste had been dumped in the city’s water supply, and the EPA forces both Grace and Beatrice to pay 69.4 million dollars in cleanup costs because both companies violated the Clean Water Act.
According to a summary of the Clean Water Act from the EPA, “the Clean Water Act (CWA) establishes the basic structure for regulating discharges of pollutants into the waters of the United States and regulating quality standards for surface waters,” but not groundwater sources. Based on this 1972 Clean Water Act, the EPA “has implemented pollution control programs such as setting wastewater standards for industry” and “set water quality standards for all contaminants in surface waters,” making it illegal to “discharge any pollutant from a point source into navigable waters, unless a permit was obtained.” The Clean Water Act helps control one important element of the riparian doctrine, ensuring that downstream water uses are not adversely affected by those upstream. The Clean Water Act and the EPA monitoring it become integral agents in A Civil Action and the actual court case it inspired.