The Needle in the Haystack

Given our extensive knowledge of federal, state, and local records collections, law firms and businesses often come to us in search of historical documentation that will support their cases or tell their unique stories. But when we take on projects, we never know just how much documentation we’ll discover. Sometimes it’s a lot – enough to fill up several Bankers Boxes. Other times, it’s not so much, and only a file folder or two is required. Recently, we unearthed a handful of documents for an environmental case, though we had combed through many relevant collections at federal repositories in the Washington, D.C. area. This was a perfect example of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack, where one document (out of only the aforementioned handful) proved invaluable to our client.

The law firm that requested our historical research services was representing a private company that has owned and operated resort facilities on the West coast for almost 125 years. During World War II, the company leased land to various branches of the U.S. military for training and other purposes. Between the years 1942 and 1945, 1,500 acres were leased to the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG), which established a training base on a fraction of this acreage. This small piece of the property’s history became important when a state agency brought a lawsuit against the private company, requesting further investigation and subsequent clean-up efforts into a solid waste disposal site on the land. The agency had found hazardous waste –including lead, copper, and zinc — in an area that had over the years been referred to as the “Coast Guard dump.” Therefore, the company wanted to know if the USCG did in fact contribute to the disposal site or “dump” during its time on the property.

Previous attempts by an environmental consulting firm to answer this question had been unsuccessful, primarily because the dump area was quite small and was not part of any formal waste site disposal operation. It appeared that no evidence existed to show whether or not the Coast Guard contributed to the dump in question. However, Taylor & Hammel was able to locate one key document: a 1943 Coast Guard report buried within USCG correspondence files held at the Washington, D.C., branch of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). This report indicated that garbage from the Coast Guard’s base was disposed of in an “open pit ½ mile from camp.” The report further stipulated that the base’s sanitation went through the “sewer system to the sea” and also included a map detailing the layout of the base. Unfortunately, the dump or “open pit” was not depicted on the map.

Among other potentially useful documents we located for the client were two aerial photographs from a regional NARA facility on the West coast. These 1943 photos were located in the U.S. Coast Guard Central Subject Files and they capture the area of interest. Unfortunately, it is unclear whether the area was being used as a dump at the time.

While there was admittedly little information gleaned from historical records available at repositories like NARA or the U.S. Coast Guard Historian’s Office, the 1943 Coast Guard report provided the welcomed evidence our client needed for their environmental case because it connected the Coast Guard to the hazardous solid waste disposal site or dump. Who knows? There could be more documentation out there in other record collections that were beyond our initial scope of work, which could also prove useful to the client as they build their case. As always, we informed our client of such potential collections in our detailed research summary delivered upon completion of the project.