Next year will mark 40 years since New York officials declared a State of Emergency in Love Canal amid an environmental crisis less than a mile from the majestic Niagara Falls. The Environmental Protection Agency has called the situation in Love Canal “one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history.”
It was August 1978 and Love Canal, a neighborhood in the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., attracted national attention to an alarming public health emergency as well as our nation’s history of dumping of toxic waste into the ground. It was revealed that a decommissioned 16-acre landfill, the hidden centerpiece of this tight-knit, working class community, had seeped chemicals into the surrounding neighborhood, affecting the health of many of its residents.
Hundreds of families would be displaced, numerous people would be found to have a variety of health issues as well as developmental and intellectual disabilities. Culminating from this environmental disaster, federal government would pass the landmark Superfund law.
A “Model” Community
In the 1890s, William T. Love, an entrepreneur from the Western Railroad Corporation, wanted to create a “Model City” community on Lake Ontario featuring a short canal to provide inexpensive hydroelectric power to fuel the industry and homes of his city.
With considerable financial backing from investors and great interest from steel companies and other manufacturers hoping to open plants along the canal, Love was able to dig the first mile of the canal, before several situations would derail his dreams. First, Congress would pass a law to preserve Niagara Falls by barring removal of water from the Niagara River.
Love’s deserted excavation project would fill with water and locals used it for swimming and ice-skating.
Growth of the City
Without the assistance of Love, the community of Love Canal did begin to take shape, not as the model city of which the developer dreamed, but as a working class neighborhood of Niagara Falls, supported by local Industry and tourism, which grew steadily throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Sadly, the mile-long Love Canal which had once held such promise instead became a municipal dump site for the City of Niagara Falls in the 1920’s.
In 1942, the Niagara Power and Development Company granted permission to Hooker Chemical Company to dispose its large quantity of chemical waste into the canal. Hooker drained and lined the canal with thick clay and began using it to dispose of 55-US-gallon barrels.
Hooker officially bought the canal from the city in 1947 along with the 70-foot-wide banks on either side of it and converted it into a 16-acre landfill. Over the years, 21,800 tons of chemicals, mostly composed of products such as “caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons (dioxin) from the manufacture of dyes, perfumes, solvents for rubber and synthetic resins ” were dumped into the landfill.
Sale of the Property
In the fifties, Niagara Falls was experiencing a population boom, and the school district needed to build new schools. The superintendent of Niagara Falls School Board proposed purchasing the property from Hooker in 1952 in order to construct a new school. Hooker deeded the site to the school board for one dollar with a liability limitation clause to release the company from all future responsibilities for the buried chemicals.
Construction of the Schools
In 1954, during construction of the 99th Street School, workers discovered two dump sites filled with 55-gallon drums containing chemical wastes. The school’s architect informed the education committee and advised against building in that area, not knowing what wastes were present in the ground and what they might do to the foundation of the school.
Instead, the school board moved the school site 85 feet north and continued construction.
In 1955, the 99th Street School opened and 400 children attended that year. Later in the year, a 25-foot area crumbled exposing toxic chemical drums. It filled with water during rainstorms, creating large puddles in which children played.
Meanwhile, the school district sold the lands adjacent to the landfill site to private developers and the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, and 800 private houses and 240 low-income apartments were built. In 1957, while constructing sewers, construction crews once again broke through the clay seal, breaching the canal walls and allowing toxic wastes to seep out after rains.
After an extremely wet winter and spring in 1962, the breached canal turned into an overflowing pool, and residents reported puddles of oil and colored liquid in their basements or yards.
This continued for years, with residents smelling foul odors and seeing substances oozing up their yards or the public playgrounds. Then, in 1977, a winter storm dumped 33-45 inches of snow, which significantly raised the water table. This raised the elevation of dioxins, causing eruptions in backyards.
Contamination is Discovered
In early 1978, reporter Michael Brown, who worked for the local newspaper, The Niagara Gazette, began investigating potential health effects in Love Canal, going door-to-door in the neighborhood. His findings included families reporting children with birth defects and abnormalities such as enlarged feet, heads, hands, and legs.
In the spring of 1978, after identifying a number of organic compounds in the basements of 11 homes adjacent to the Love Canal, the State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation began testing the air, soil, and groundwater.
They found unacceptable levels of toxic vapors associated with more than 80 compounds that were emanating from the basements of many of the homes adjacent to the canal. Laboratory analyses of soil and sediment samples from canal indicated the presence of more than 200 distinct organic chemical compounds and numerous other chemicals and toxic materials including benzene, chloroform, toluene, Dioxin, and various kinds of PCB had seeped through the ground.
Michael Gibbs, a student who had begun attending school in September 1977, developed epilepsy in December, as well as asthma, a urinary tract infection, and low white blood cell count. His mother, Lois Gibbs had been looking for answers as to why her son was suddenly ill and why there was such a high rate of illnesses, miscarriages, and intellectual disability in the neighborhood. When she read Brown’s series of articles in The Niagara Gazette linking the Love Canal toxic landfill with high instances of miscarriage and mysterious illnesses in the community, she asked that her son be transferred to another school. When her request was turned down by the district, she went door-to-door with a petition.
She then presented her request, signed by 161 residents, at a state health department hearing in Albany and officials agreed to close the school.
Government Response and Evacuation
On August 2, 1978, Love Canal was declared a state emergency and all pregnant women and children were ordered to evacuate. The front-page story in the New York Times read:
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.–Twenty five years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using the Love Canal here as an industrial dump, 82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal.
Five days later, on August 7, New York Governor Hugh Carey announced that the State would purchase the homes affected by chemicals, and on that same day, President Jimmy Carter approved emergency financial aid for the area. The emergency funds were the first ever to be approved for something other than a “natural” disaster.
Eckhardt C. Beck, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator for Region 2, visited Love Canal and described what he found:
I visited the canal area at that time. Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.
Evacuation of residents began in summer of 1978, and in early 1979, the state agreed to buy the 232 homes closest to the Love Canal at market value. A chain link fence was erected around the evacuated area, deeming the homes beyond the fence out of the danger zone. Those residents outside the fenced area were unable to sell their houses due to public awareness of the contamination so they were unable to move away.
Gibbs and her neighbors were concerned about the health and safety of the remaining residents and they formed the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, electing Gibbs as its president.
However, the residents’ concerns were ignored not only by Hooker Chemical, now part of Occidental Petroleum, but also by members of government, who argued that the residents’ health problems were unrelated to the buried toxic chemicals. They were unable to prove the chemicals on their properties had originated from Hooker’s disposal site, so they could not prove liability.
Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as Superfund, on December 11, 1980. Superfund created a tax on the chemical and petroleum industries and granted broad Federal authority to respond directly to the release of hazardous substances that pose a public health or the environmental threat. It also created a National Priorities List (NPL) which listed the sites with priority in cleanup and added the Love Canal as its first Superfund site on the list.
By 1981 much of the surrounding neighborhood was evacuated as a result of lawsuits by residents and environmental groups.
The Superfund Act contained a retroactive liability provision which held Occidental Petroleum liable for cleanup of the waste despite it following all applicable U.S. laws at the time of disposal. In 1995, Occidental settled to pay restitution of $129 million, and from that federal lawsuit came funding for $3.5 million for the state health study.
The EPA and New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) began remediation of the site in September, 1983. Homes on the east and west sides of the canal were demolished, with the exception of the homes of some older east side residents who chose to stay; fewer than 90 of the original 900 families chose to stay. They were willing to remain as long as they were guaranteed that their homes were in a comparatively safe zone.
Due to the extent of the contamination at the site, the remediation was done in several stages focusing on “landfill containment with leachate collection; treatment and disposal; excavation and treatment of the sewer and creek sediment and other wastes; cleanup of the 93rd Street School soils; the purchase, maintenance and rehabilitation of properties; and, other short-term cleanup actions.”
The 16 acre canal area was capped with clay, high-density polyethylene liner and topsoil and chainlink fence was installed around the area. The EPA and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation completed remedy construction in 1999.
In 1979, Beck reported that residents exhibited a “disturbingly high rate of miscarriages.” In one case, two out of four children in one family whose children were born and raised in the community had birth defects: one child was born deaf with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and an intellectual disability and the other child was born with an eye defect.
In 1979, the EPA revealed the result of blood tests showing high white blood cell counts, a precursor to leukemia and 33 percent of the residents showed chromosomal damage in comparison to one percent in a typical population.
Several studies reported higher levels of low-birth weight babies and birth defects among the exposed residents, exposed children found to have an “excess of seizures, learning problems, hyperactivity, eye irritation, skin rashes, abdominal pain, and incontinence” and stunted growth.
Residents Return to the Area
In 1980, the state government founded the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency (LCARA) to restore the area. The Federal Government provided $15 million, half of which was a grant to the state and half be administered by the LCARA for acquisition of properties in the contaminated area.
By 1982, LCARA had bought over 400 homes, including the original 232, and started considering proposals to redevelop the area.
By May of 2000, 239 homes north of the canal in an area renamed Black Creek Village were renovated and sold to new owners. and about 150 acres east of the canal have designated commercial light industrial use. Although they were assured that the neighborhood was now safe, some residents are once again experiencing illnesses which may be linked to toxic chemical exposure and there are pending lawsuits.
“It is a cruel irony that Love Canal was originally meant to be a dream community. That vision belonged to the man for whom the three-block tract of land on the eastern edge of Niagara Falls, New York, was named–William T. Love,” wrote Beck in 1979.
Occidental Chemical, is still a major local employer in the area. It has paid over $233 million in cleanup and medical expenses for victims of the contamination, and pays for 24-hour monitoring of the site.
These days, Lois Gibbs heads the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a grassroots group based in Falls Church, Va., helping communities battle their own Love Canals.