Groundwater testing near a large Massachusetts landfill shows high levels of heavy metals, including arsenic, chromium, and lead. The neighbors are concerned. They worry that their drinking water will be contaminated.

In response to pressure from the local Board of Health, the landfill owner hires an environmental consultant to determine whether its polluted groundwater poses a threat to the neighbors. The consultant finds that, given the geology of the area, the groundwater likely will never reach the neighbors’ private wells.

While the Board of Health appears satisfied with the consultant’s conclusions, the neighbors are not. They do not understand why they should trust the developer’s paid consultant. In any event, they are not comfortable with the idea that the groundwater “likely” will not reach their wells.

To appease the neighbors, the owner of the landfill offers to provide them with as much bottled water as they need. The neighbors are not appeased. They are offended. They do not want to live on bottled water. They want to use their wells.

Several of the neighbors decide to sell their homes. None can find a buyer. The landfill’s contaminated groundwater has been widely publicized. Realtors tell the neighbors that most prospective buyers will not even look at properties near the landfill. When the neighbors call the Board of Health, they are told that their diminished property value is not a Board of Health concern.

The neighbors finally call an environmental law attorney. The attorney explains that the landfill is potentially liable to them under a theory of nuisance, and also may be liable under a federal statute that enables citizens to sue polluting landfills that pose a threat to human health or the environment. The neighbors retain the attorney. The attorney files suit against the landfill on their behalf. The suit is ultimately settled with the landfill owner agreeing to conduct more extensive groundwater monitoring around the perimeter of the landfill, to take remedial action if monitoring shows that the polluted groundwater is migrating toward the neighbors’ wells, and to compensate the neighbors for the reduced value of their properties.