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The Love Canal site in 2012
The Love Canal site in 2012
Love Canal was a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, located in the LaSalle section of the city. It officially covers 36 square blocks in the far southeastern corner of the city, along 99th Street and Read Avenue. Two bodies of water define the northern and southern boundaries of the neighborhood: Bergholtz Creek to the north and the Niagara River one-quarter mile (400 m) to the south. In the mid-1970s Love Canal became the subject of national and international attention after it was revealed in the press that the site had formerly been used to bury 21,000 tons of toxic waste by Hooker Chemical (now Occidental Petroleum Corporation).
Hooker Chemical sold the site to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for $1, with a deed explicitly detailing the presence of the waste, and including a liability limitation clause about the contamination. The construction efforts of housing development, combined with particularly heavy rainstorms, released the chemical waste, leading to a public health emergency and an urban planning scandal. Hooker Chemical was found to be negligent in their disposal of waste, though not reckless in the sale of the land, in what became a test case for liability clauses. The dumpsite was discovered and investigated by the local newspaper, the Niagara Falls Gazette, from 1976 through the evacuation in 1978. Potential health problems were first raised by reporter Michael H. Brown in July 1978.
Ten years after the incident, New York State Health Department Commissioner David Axelrod (not to be confused with former presidential advisor David Axelrod) stated that Love Canal would long be remembered as a "national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations." The Love Canal incident was especially significant as a situation where the inhabitants "overflowed into the wastes instead of the other way around."
The Love Canal came from the last name of William T. Love, who in the early 1890s envisioned a canal connecting the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. He believed it would serve the area's burgeoning industries with much needed hydro electricity; however, the power scheme was never completed due to limitations of direct current (DC) power transmission, and Tesla's introduction of alternating current (AC). Furthermore, the Panic of 1893 caused investors to drop sponsorship of the project. Also, Congress passed a law barring the removal of water from the Niagara River, to preserve Niagara Falls. After 1892, Love's plan changed to incorporate a shipping lane that would bypass the Niagara Falls, reaching Lake Ontario. He envisioned a perfect urban area called "Model City" and prepared a plan with a community of parks and homes along Lake Ontario. His plan was never realized. He began digging the canal and built a few streets and homes when his funds were depleted. Only one mile (1.6 km) of the canal, about 50 feet (15 m) wide and 10 to 40 feet (3 m to 12 m) deep, stretching northward from the Niagara River, was dug.
There is little information about those who actually worked for Love. Canal building was exhausting, dirty and often dangerous. Immigrants usually performed this arduous work, along with removing all trees and vegetation.
With the project abandoned, the canal gradually filled with water. The local children swam there in the summer and skated in the winter. In the 1920s, the canal became a dump site for the City of Niagara Falls, with the city regularly unloading its municipal refuse into the pit.
By the 1940s, Hooker Electrochemical Company (later known as Hooker Chemical Company), founded by Elon Hooker, began searching for a place to dump the large quantity of chemical waste it was producing. Hooker was granted permission by the Niagara Power and Development Company in 1942 to dump wastes in the canal. The canal was drained and lined with thick clay. Into this site, Hooker began placing 55-US-gallon (210 L) metal or fibre barrels. In 1947, Hooker bought the canal and the 70-foot-wide (21 m) banks on either side of the canal. The City of Niagara Falls and the army continued the dumping of refuse.
In 1948, after World War II had ended and the City of Niagara Falls had ended self-sufficient disposal of refuse, Hooker became the sole user and owner of the site.
This dumpsite was in operation until 1953. During this time, 21,000 tons of chemicals such as "caustics, alkalines, fatty acids and chlorinated hydrocarbons from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, solvents for rubber and synthetic resins" were added. These chemicals were buried at a depth of twenty to twenty-five feet. After 1953, the canal was covered with soil, and vegetation began to grow atop the dumpsite.
At the time of the dump's closure, Niagara Falls was entering an economic boom and the population began expanding drastically, surpassing 85,000. The Niagara Falls City School District needed land to build new schools, and attempted to purchase the property from Hooker Chemical that had been used to bury toxic waste. The corporation initially refused to sell citing safety concerns, however, the board refused to capitulate. Eventually faced with parts of the property being condemned and/or expropriated, Hooker Chemical agreed to sell on the condition that the board buy the entire property for one dollar. In the agreement signed on April 28, 1953, Hooker included a seventeen-line caveat that explained the dangers of building on the site. Hooker believed it was thus released from all legal obligations should lawsuits arise in the future.
|“||Prior to the delivery of this instrument of conveyance, the grantee herein has been advised by the grantor that the premises above described have been filled, in whole or in part, to the present grade level thereof with waste products resulting from the manufacturing of chemicals by the grantor at its plant in the City of Niagara Falls, New York, and the grantee assumes all risk and liability incident to the use thereof. It is therefore understood and agreed that, as a part of the consideration for this conveyance and as a condition thereof, no claim, suit, action or demand of any nature whatsoever shall ever be made by the grantee, its successors or assigns, against the grantor, its successors or assigns, for injury to a person or persons, including death resulting therefrom, or loss of or damage to property caused by, in connection with or by reason of the presence of said industrial wastes. It is further agreed as a condition hereof that each subsequent conveyance of the aforesaid lands shall be made subject to the foregoing provisions and conditions.||”|
Hooker stated that the area should be sealed off "so as to prevent the possibility of persons or animals coming in contact with the dumped materials."
Despite the disclaimer, the board began construction of the 99th Street School in its originally intended location. In January 1954, the architect of the school wrote to the education committee informing them that during excavation, workers discovered two dump sites filled with 55-US-gallon (210 L) drums containing chemical wastes. The architect also noted that it would be "poor policy" to build in that area since it was not known what wastes were present in the ground, and the concrete foundation might be subsequently damaged. The school board then moved the school site eighty to eighty-five feet further north. The kindergarten playground also had to be relocated because a chemical dump lay directly beneath. Upon completion in 1955, 400 children attended the school, and it opened along with several other schools that had been built to accommodate students. That same year, a twenty-five foot area crumbled exposing toxic chemical drums, which then filled with water during rainstorms. This created large puddles that children enjoyed playing in.
In 1950, a second school, the 93rd Street School, had opened six blocks away.
In 1957, the City of Niagara Falls constructed sewers for a mixture of low-income and single family residences be built on lands adjacent to the landfill site. The school district had sold off the remaining land, and homes were to be built by private developers, as well as the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, who planned to build the Griffon Manor housing project. While building the gravel sewer beds, construction crews broke through the clay seal, breaching the canal walls. Specifically, the local government removed part of the protective clay cap to use as fill dirt for the nearby 93rd Street School, and punched holes in the solid clay walls to build water lines and the LaSalle Expressway. This allowed the toxic wastes to escape when rainwater, no longer kept out by the partially removed clay cap, washed them through the gaps created in the walls. Hence, the buried chemicals had a further opportunity to migrate and seep from the canal. The land where the homes were being built was not part of the agreement between the school board and Hooker; thus, none of these residents knew the history of the canal. There was no monitoring or evaluating of the chemical wastes which were being stored under the ground. Additionally, the clay cover of the canal which was supposed to be impermeable began to crack. The subsequent construction of the LaSalle Expressway restricted groundwater from flowing to the Niagara River. Following the exceptionally wet winter and spring of 1962, the elevated expressway turned the breached canal into an overflowing pool. People reported having puddles of oil or colored liquid in yards or basements.
In 1976, two reporters for the Niagara Falls Gazette, David Pollak and David Russell, tested several sump pumps near Love Canal and found toxic chemicals in them. The matter went quiet for more than a year and was resurrected by reporter Michael Brown, who then investigated potential health effects by carrying forth an informal door-to-door survey in early 1978, finding birth defects and many anomalies such as enlarged feet, heads, hands, and legs. He advised the local residents to create a protest group, which was led by resident Karen Schroeder, whose daughter had many (about a dozen) birth defects. The New York State Health Department followed suit and found an abnormal incidence of miscarriages. The dumpsite was declared an unprecedented state emergency on August 2, 1978. Mr. Brown, who wrote more than a hundred articles on the dump, tested the groundwater and later found the dump was three times larger than originally thought, with possible ramifications beyond the original evacuation zone. He was also to discover that highly toxic dioxins were there. On August 2, 1978, Lois Gibbs, a local mother who called an election to head the Love Canal Homeowners' Association, began to rally homeowners. Her son, Michael Gibbs, began attending school in September 1977. He developed epilepsy in December, suffered from asthma and a urinary tract infection, and had a low white blood cell count, all associated with his exposure to the leaking chemical waste. Gibbs had learned from Mr. Brown that her neighborhood sat atop 21,000 tons of buried chemical waste.
In the following years, Gibbs led an effort to investigate community concerns about the health of its residents. She and other residents made repeated complaints of strange odors and "substances" that surfaced in their yards. In Gibbs' neighborhood, there was a high rate of unexplained illnesses, miscarriages, and mental retardation. Basements were often covered with a thick, black substance, and vegetation was dying. In many yards, the only vegetation that grew were shrubby grasses. Although city officials were asked to investigate the area, they did not act to solve the problem. Niagara Falls mayor Michael O'Laughlin infamously stated that there was "nothing wrong" in Love Canal.
According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1979, residents exhibited a "disturbingly high rate of miscarriages ... Love Canal can now be added to a growing list of environmental disasters involving toxics, ranging from industrial workers stricken by nervous disorders and cancers to the discovery of toxic materials in the milk of nursing mothers." In one case, two out of four children in a single Love Canal family had birth defects; one girl was born deaf with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and slight retardation, and a boy was born with an eye defect. A survey conducted by the Love Canal Homeowners Association found that 56% of the children born from 1974–1978 had at least one birth defect.
With further investigation, Gibbs discovered the chemical danger of the adjacent canal. This began her organization's two-year effort to demonstrate that the waste buried by Hooker Chemical was responsible for the health problems of local residents. Throughout the ordeal, homeowners' concerns were ignored not only by Hooker Chemical (now a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum), but also by members of government. These parties argued that the area's endemic health problems were unrelated to the toxic chemicals buried in the Canal. Since the residents could not prove the chemicals on their property had come from Hooker's disposal site, they could not prove liability. Throughout the legal battle, residents were unable to sell their properties and move away.
However, when Eckhardt C. Beck (EPA Administrator for Region 2, 1977 – 1979) visited Love Canal in the late 1970s, he discerned the presence of toxic substances in the community:
|“||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 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.||”|
Robert Whalen, New York's Health Commissioner, also visited Love Canal and believed that the Canal constituted an emergency, stating: "Love Canal Chemical Waste Landfill constitutes a public nuisance and an extremely serious threat and danger to the health, safety and welfare of those using it, living near it or exposed to the conditions emanating from it, consisting among other things, of chemical wastes lying exposed on the surface in numerous places pervasive, pernicious and obnoxious chemical vapors and fumes affecting both the ambient air and the homes of certain residents living near such sites." Whalen also instructed people to avoid going into their basements as well as to avoid fruits and vegetables grown in their gardens. People became very worried because many had consumed produce from their gardens for several years. Whalen urged that all pregnant women and children under the age of two be removed from Love Canal as soon as possible.
The 99th Street School, on the other hand, was located within the former boundary of the Hooker Chemical landfill site. The school was closed and demolished, but both the school board and the chemical company refused to accept liability. The 93rd Street School was closed some two years later due to concerns about seeping toxic waste.
The lack of public interest in Love Canal made matters worse for the homeowners' association, which now battled two organizations who were spending vast amounts of money to disprove negligence. Initially, members of the association had been frustrated by the lack of a public entity that could advise and defend them. Gibbs met with considerable public resistance from a number of residents within the community: the mostly middle-class families did not have the resources to protect themselves, and many did not see any alternative other than abandoning their homes at a loss.
By 1978, Love Canal had become a national media event with articles referring to the neighborhood as "a public health time bomb," and "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history." Brown, working for the local newspaper, the Niagara Gazette, is credited with not only breaking open the case, but establishing toxic chemical wastes as a nationwide issue as well. Brown's book, Laying Waste, examined the Love Canal disaster and many other toxic waste catastrophes nationwide.
On August 7, 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter announced a federal health emergency, called for the allocation of federal funds and ordered the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to assist the City of Niagara Falls to remedy the Love Canal site. This was the first time in American history that emergency funds were used for a situation other than a natural disaster. Carter had trenches built that would transport the wastes to sewers and had home sump pumps sealed off.
At first, scientific studies did not conclusively prove that the chemicals were responsible for the residents' illnesses, and scientists were divided on the issue, even though eleven known or suspected carcinogens had been identified, one of the most prevalent being benzene. There was also dioxin (polychlorinated dibenzodioxins) in the water, a very hazardous substance. Dioxin pollution is usually measured in parts per trillion; at Love Canal, water samples showed dioxin levels of 53 parts per billion. Geologists were recruited to determine whether underground swales were responsible for carrying the chemicals to the surrounding residential areas. Once there, chemicals could leach into basements and evaporate into household air.
In 1979, the EPA announced the result of blood tests that showed high white blood cell counts, a precursor to leukemia, and chromosome damage in Love Canal residents. In fact, 33% of the residents had undergone chromosomal damage. In a typical population, chromosomal damage affects 1% of people. Other studies were unable to find harm. The United States National Research Council (NRC) surveyed Love Canal health studies in 1991. The NRC noted that the major exposure of concern was the groundwater rather than drinking water; the groundwater "seeped into basements" and then led to exposure through air and soil:196 noted that several studies reported higher levels of low-birth weight babies and birth defects among the exposed residents:190–91 with some evidence that the effect subsided after the exposure was eliminated.:165 The National Research Council also noted a study which found that exposed children were found to have an "excess of seizures, learning problems, hyperactivity, eye irritation, skin rashes, abdominal pain, and incontinence" and stunted growth.:196 Voles in the area were studied and found to have significantly increased mortality compared to controls (mean life expectancy in exposed animals "23.6 and 29.2 days, respectively, compared to 48.8 days" for control animals).:215 New York State also has an ongoing health study of Love Canal residents. In that year, the Albert Elia Building Co., Inc., now Sevenson Environmental Services, Inc., was selected as the principal contractor to safely re-bury the toxic waste at the Love Canal Site.
Eventually, the government relocated more than 800 families and reimbursed them for their homes, and the United States Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), or the Superfund Act. Because the Superfund Act contained a "retroactive liability" provision, Occidental was held liable for cleanup of the waste even though it had followed all applicable U.S. laws when disposing of it. In 1994, Federal District Judge John Curtin ruled that Hooker/Occidental had been negligent, but not reckless, in its handling of the waste and sale of the land to the Niagara Falls School Board. Curtin's decision also contains a detailed history of events leading up to the Love Canal disaster. Occidental Petroleum was sued by the EPA and in 1995 agreed to pay $129 million in restitution. Residents' lawsuits were also settled in the years following the Love Canal disaster.
Houses in the residential areas on the east and west sides of the canal have been demolished. All that remains on the west side are abandoned residential streets. Some older east side residents, whose houses stand alone in the demolished neighborhood, chose to stay. It was estimated that fewer than 90 of the original 900 families opted to remain. They were willing to remain as long as they were guaranteed that their homes were in a relatively safe area. On June 4, 1980, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency (LCARA) was founded to restore the area. The area north of Love Canal became known as Black Creek Village. LCARA wanted to resell 300 homes that had been bought by New York when the residents were relocated. The homes are farther away from where the chemicals were dumped. The most toxic area (16 acres (65,000 m2)) was reburied with a thick plastic liner, clay and dirt. A 2.4 metres (7 ft 10 in) high barbed wire fence was installed around the area. It has been calculated that 248 separate chemicals, including 60 kilograms (130 lb) of dioxin, have been unearthed from the canal.
In 1998, Dr. Elizabeth Whelan, founder of American Council on Science and Health, wrote an editorial about the Canal in which she stated that when the media started calling the Canal a "public health time bomb," it created hysteria. She declared that people were not falling ill due to exposure to chemical waste, but from stress caused by the media. Besides double the rate of birth defects to children born while living on Love Canal, a follow-up study two decades after the incident "showed increased risks of low birth weight, congenital malformations and other adverse reproductive events."
Love Canal, along with Times Beach, Missouri, are important in United States environmental history as the two sites that in large part led to the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). CERCLA is commonly referred to as "Superfund" because of the fund established by the act to help the clean-up of toxic pollution in residential locations such as Love Canal. It has been stated that Love Canal has "become the symbol for what happens when hazardous industrial products are not confined to the workplace but 'hit people where they live' in inestimable amounts."
Love Canal was not an isolated case. Eckardt C. Beck, Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency during the Love Canal crisis, suggested that there are probably hundreds of similar dumpsites. President Carter declared that discovering these dumpsites was "one of the grimmest discoveries of the modern era." Had the residents of Love Canal been aware that they were residing on toxic chemicals, most would not have moved there in the first place. Beck noted that one main problem remains that ownership of such chemical companies can change over the years making liability difficult to assign (a problem that would be addressed by CERCLA, or the Superfund Act). Beck contended that increased commitment was necessary to develop controls that would "defuse future Love Canals."
The free market environmentalist movement has often cited the Love Canal incident as a consequence of government decision-makers not taking responsibility for their decisions. Stroup writes, "The school district owning the land had a laudable but narrow goal: it wanted to provide education cheaply for district children. Government decision makers are seldom held accountable for broader social goals in the way that private owners are by liability rules and potential profits."
The legacy of the disaster spawned a fictionalized made-for-TV film entitled Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal (1982). An award-winning documentary by Lynn Corcoran entitled In Our Own Backyard was released in the U.S. in 1983. Modern Marvels retold the disaster in 2004. The film Tootsie has a character attempting to produce a play called "Return To Love Canal". Joyce Carol Oates has brought the story of Love Canal into her 2004 novel The Falls however setting the suspicions of harm to the 1960s.