Location The Love Canal is a rectangular, 16-acre, below-ground-level landfill located in the southeast corner of the City of Niagara Falls, Niagara County, about one-quarter mile from the Niagara River.
Situation that led to the Disaster In 1920, the land was sold at public auction to the City of Niagara Falls, which began using the undeveloped area as a landfill for waste disposal from its thriving petrochemical industry. There are also allegations that the United States Army used the site to bury waste from its chemical warfare experiments. In 1942, the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, expanded the use of the site, and in 1947 purchased the land for its own private use. In the subsequent five-year period, the company buried 21,800 tons of toxic waste in the area. Once the site had been filled to capacity in 1952, Hooker closed the site and back-filled the canal. At the time of the closure, Niagara Falls' population was expanding rapidly and the local school board, desperately needing land, attempted in 1953 to purchase some of the Hooker Chemical property for a new elementary school. The company initially refused to sell, but eventually sold on the condition that the school board buy the entire property for a dollar. In the agreement, Hooker included a seventeen line caveat that explained the dangers of building on the site.
Description of the Disaster Shortly thereafter, the school board began construction on the 99th Street School. The original building site was forced to relocate when contractors discovered two pits filled with chemicals. The new location was directly on top of the former chemical landfill. During construction, a clay seal which Hooker had put in to stop the chemicals from seeping out was broken through. In 1957, the City of Niagara Falls constructed sewers for a mixture of low-income and single-family residences to be built on lands adjacent to the landfill site. In the following years, residents began making repeated complaints of strange odors and "substances" that surfaced in their yards. City officials were brought in to investigate the issue, but little or no action was ever taken. Lois Gibbs, an activist, noticed the high occurrence of illness and birth defects in the area and started documenting it. In 1978 newspapers revealed the existence of the chemical waste dump in the Love Canal area and Lois Gibbs started petitioning for closing the school. In August 1978, the claim succeeded and the NYS Health Department ordered closing of the school when a child suffered from chemical poisoning. When Love Canal was researched over 130 pounds of the highly toxic carcinogenic TCDD, a form of dioxin, was discovered. The total of 20.000 tons of waste present in the landfill appeared to contain more than 248 different species of chemicals. The waste mainly consisted of pesticide residues and chemical weapons research refuse.
Governmental Response On April 25, 1978, the New York State Health Commissioner confirmed that a public health hazard existed in the Love Canal community. The Commissioner ordered the Niagara County Health Department to remove exposed chemicals from the site and install a fence around the area. On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared the Love Canal neighborhood an emergency and provided funds to permanently relocate the 239 families who lived in the first two rows of homes that encircled the landfill site. Families living in the remaining 10-block area, including Lois Gibbs' family, were told they were not at risk. However, in February, 1979 a second evacuation order was issued by the New York State Department of Health. This order recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of two living in the ten block area outside the first evacuation zone of 239 homes should leave. In this case, once the child turned two years of age or the pregnancy terminated, the family was to move back into the contaminated neighborhood. On May 21, 1980, the White House agreed to evacuate all Love Canal families temporally until permanent relocation funds could be secured. Funding was secured and President Carter visited the area in October, 1980 to sign the appropriation bill.
Cleanup Efforts In 1983 a lawsuit filed by 1328 Love Canal residents was settled for just under $20 million dollars with Occidental Chemical Corporation, the successor to Hooker Chemical. One million dollars was set aside for a medical trust fund. Eventually, the government relocated more than 800 families and reimbursed them for their homes. Congress passed the Superfund law holding polluters accountable. Occidental Petroleum was sued by the EPA and in 1995 agreed to pay $129 Million in damages to clean up the site (on top of $98 million paid in 1994 to the state of New York for its share of the costs). The cleanup of the site was investigated, designed, and overseen by the environmental consulting firm Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, based in Waterloo, Canada. Today, the waterway that gave the neighborhood its name is buried under a plastic liner, clay and topsoil in a fenced area declared permanently off-limits. Scores of homes were buried, but the rest of Love Canal was declared safe by the New York State Department of Health and the EPA. A public corporation took ownership of the abandoned properties, fixed up the homes and resold them. The community is now known as Black Creek Village, and, in a report by CNN in 1998, the new residents of Black Creek Village feel safe in their new homes. "This area has been tested and tested and tested," said homeowner Trudy Christman. "This is the most tested piece of real estate in the United States."
Long Term Effects of the Disaster The profound and devastating effects of the Love Canal tragedy, in terms of human health and suffering and environmental damage, cannot and probably will never be fully measured. We cannot undo the damage that was been to Love Canal but we can take appropriate preventive measures so that we are better able to anticipate and hopefully prevent future events of this kind.
Love Canal’s Legacy The crisis at Love Canal spurred some immediate change. In New York, the state health system was prompted to create a registry of birth defects. Love Canal also spawned the Superfund law. In 1980, President Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act, creating a fund paid into by waste generators for cleanup of the nation's most toxic sites. The program is nearly out of money now and has a huge backlog of sites needing cleanup, but it established the "polluter pays" concept. Environmental scientists continue to uncover the long-term health effects of chemical exposure. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (including dioxin), which were virtually unknown in 1978, are currently one of the hottest topics in environmental health science. Researchers have found that, in some cases, these chemicals can cause reproductive effects that carry forward for multiple generations. The follow-up health study of Love Canal finds a disturbing trend that echoes that pattern: Children born to mothers who lived on the canal during pregnancy have increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes themselves later in life, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and babies born small for their gestational age. Perhaps most importantly, Love Canal inspired a generation of activists like Erin Brokovich to take on environmental problems in their communities. "It took the environmental movement back to the grass roots," says Levine, after a decade when environmental battles were waged increasingly in court and out of the public forum.