A Civil Action - The Woburn Toxic Trial > Key Issues in the Trial > Woburn Industrial History > Chemical Industries

Chemical Industries in Woburn


The 1986 federal trial focused responsibility for pollution of municipal wells G and H on W.R. Grace & Co. and Beatrice Foods, Inc. In its defense, W.R. Grace highlighted the history of pollution in the Woburn area and more specifically, historical pollution of the Aberjona River. A major chemical manufacturing industry, located upstream of wells G and H within the Aberjona River valley, began operations before the civil war. The Merrimac Chemical Company, expanded rapidly to become the largest chemical company in New England and one of the largest chemical companies in the United States between the Civil War and 1929. The environmental impacts of its manufacturing and storage facilities are described below.

Merrimac Chemical Company

Between 1853 and 1933, Woburn Chemical Works (the predecessor to Merrimac Chemical Company), Merrimac Chemical Company, and Merrimac Division of Monsanto (the company that bought Merrimac Chemical Company) manufactured sulfuric acid, arsenic-based insecticides, acetic acid, and chemicals for in the textile, leather tanning, and paper manufacturing industries (Tarr 1987 ). The companies used the lead chamber method to produce sulfuric acid. In the late 19th century, pyrite ore was used as the source of sulfur. In the process, pyrite (iron disulfide) was burned on site and the residual slag was treated to recover copper. The major substances used in the manufacturing processes were lead, arsenic, sulfur, pyrite ore, and dry colors. Pyrite ore also contains several heavy metals and the dry colors likely contained lead, mercury, and chromium. Wastes on the manufacturing site included pyrite cinder, calcium sulfate, iron oxide, lead sulfate, calcium carbonate, bauxite, waste mud, and other byproducts.

In 1899, Merrimac Chemical purchased the William H. Swift Company and became the largest producer of arsenic-based insecticides in the U.S. (Learn more about pesticides. In 1915, the Merrimac Chemical Company started the New England Manufacturing Company to manufacture organic chemicals such as phenol, benzene, trinitrotoluol (TNT) and trinitrophenol as well as toluene. This company produced World War I munitions and the plant was adjacent to the old Merrimac Chemical facility. In 1929, Merrimac Chemical Company was acquired by the Monsanto Chemical Works of St. Louis (Tarr, 1987). In 1934, Monsanto closed its Woburn facility.

Other Chemical Companies

As the tanning industry and chemical manufacturing grew in Woburn, smaller, related companies came to the area including smaller chemical companies and companies that cleaned and reclaimed barrels. After World War II, leather manufacturing in Woburn declined but chemical manufacturing increased, though the Merrimac Chemical Company was no longer in business (Tarr, 1987). For example, in 1947, the P.H. Revell Company produced household chemicals, International Minerals and Chemical Corporation produced fertilizer, and the Atlantic Gelatin and Independent Tallow companies had manufacturing plants in Woburn. In addition, Consolidated Chemical Company produced glue and Stauffer Chemical Company manufactured animal glue and grease. By 1969, Atlantic Gelatin was still in operation as was and Independent Tallow were still in operation, and Consolidated Chemical was bought by Stauffer Chemicals (Tarr, 1987). By 1985, Woburn saw Continental Chemical and Coatings was manufacturing solvent, adhesives, and wood preservatives, Fuller System Inc. producing pesticides, Hy-Trous Corporation producing fertilizers, New England Resins and Pigment producing plastic and paint raw materials, and Northeast Ammonia Company producing anhydrous ammonia.


Pollution awareness and control did not begin in earnest until the 1960s. Before that time, manufacturing operations in Woburn commonly disposed of wastes on adjacent properties in pits, ponds, lagoons, and directly into the Aberjona River. Some wastes were disposed of in non-engineered landfills where it was burned and buried.

Much of the arsenic in the Aberjona River watershed was due to by-products of sulfuric acid and arsenic-based pesticide manufacturing during 1888 and 1929. On the order of 200 to 900 metric tons of arsenic were released as a result of these activities (Tarr, 1987, Aurilio et al. 1994 ). A significant fraction, approximately 13 metric tons was transported downstream by the Aberjona River into the Mystic Lakes. In 1981, the IndustriPlex property, the site where the Merrimac Chemical Company was located, was designated as a Superfund site by the U.S. EPA.

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