Love Canal: An Environmental Disaster

Colin Orians


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Interview Participants
In 1892 William T. Love proposed connecting the upper and lower Niagara rivers by digging a six mile canal to provide cheap hydro electric power to the area. This region, located in New York state, became known as Love Canal. However, after only a mile of the trench was dug, the project was abandoned due to a lack of funding.
The canal then became a landfill for chemical wastes used by Hooker Chemical Cooperation, the city of Niagara Falls and the US Army. Approximately 22,000 tons of at least 200 different chemicals were dumped by Hooker Chemical Company from 1942 to 1953. Then, in 1953, they sealed the landfill with a clay cap to contain the chemical wastes and sold the land to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1.
Despite Hooker’s warnings of the potentially toxic nature of the property, the city proceeded to build an elementary school on the newly acquired land. In addition to the elementary school, hundreds of homes were built on the periphery of the former landfill site. This development of the land caused cracks to form in the clay barrier beneath.
Soon after, residents began to complain of strange chemical odors, minor explosions, and black sludge seeping into the yards and basements. Children playing outside would return home with minor chemical burns on their feet and legs. These complaints began to surface in the early 1950’s but were not investigated until the late 1970’s.
Subsequent environmental sampling in basements next to the waste site detected over 200 different compounds. Of those, at least 12 were known to cause cancer. Additionally, high levels of dioxin, a chemical that the New York state health commissioner described as ‘the most toxic substance ever synthesized by man’ were found in the water.
Many of these chemicals eventually migrated to nearby creeks. Bioaccumulating in the tissues of plants and animals in the larger Niagara Falls area. Thus, the water contamination had negative repercussions on the entire ecosystem. With test results pouring in regarding the toxicity of the chemicals surrounding them, the residents of Love Canal became increasingly distressed.
Lois Gibbs, the mother of a child at the local elementary school, began organizing the community and formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978, without any prior experience in activism. Her organization faced tremendous difficulty in getting the government to acknowledge that there was a problem, much less respond to it.
Eventually, a very limited evacuation ensued and a clean up of the canal site began. The government only paid for the evacuation of pregnant women and children under the age of two. Thousands of outraged residents still remained endangered. Then, in 1979, the EPA announced the result of blood tests that showed chromosome damage in over 30% of the residents of Love Canal
as opposed to only 1% in a typical population. Additionally, many children had birth defects. In one year, out of 22 pregnancies, only four babes were born normally. For example, one child was born with a cleft palate, deformed ears, impaired learning ability, deafness, and an extra row of teeth.
By 1980 the residents had become so desperate that they took two federal officials hostage and demanded that the president take action. Amid a media frenzy and an upcoming presidential election, President Carter took note and a federal state of emergency was finally declared. A few months later, Congress authorized funding for the permanent relocation of all Love Canal residents.
Finally, after years of collective effort and activism, the Love Canal residents seemed to be saved. Years after the fact, we can now see how the Love Canal disaster led to several positive developments in the United States. To help ensure that nothing like this happens again, many national legislative changes were enacted to help protect people and the environment.
Love Canal also led to the creation of Superfund, a governmental program established to help clean up hazardous waste sites and hold companies accountable for their own environmental irresponsibility.
More than just structural changes, the Love Canal disaster also significantly shaped how Americans views hazardous wastes and environmental protection as a whole. It spawned a grassroots movements that gave Americans a voice on environmental issues and championed the powers of democracy.
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