Love Canal is a small community in upstate New York near Niagara Falls. Many years ago toxic chemicals were buried underground, unbeknownst to the people who settled there and sent their children to school right on top of the location where the chemicals were dumped. In the late 1970s, after many of the residents became ill, a young housewife Lois Gibbs organized the community to fight government officials for the funds to relocate their families and to clean up the site.
In 1894 a man named William T. Love imagined a model city. If he could build a canal from the Niagara River to Lake Ontario, this canal could provide water and hydroelectric power for industry and homes in this small upstate New York community. However, the discovery of the alternating current made transmission of electricity much cheaper and feasible, so by 1910 the need for the canal was no longer there and the dream of the model city clearly hadn't worked out.
One remnant that was left from the canal construction was a 1 kilometer-long pit. The pit was used by the city of Niagara Falls to dump toxic chemicals, and later the Hooker Chemical Company purchased the land and used the pit to dump its own industrial waste. Over 22,000 tons of chemicals were dumped in the pit, and no one at the time knew what the effects might be on future generations. Then in 1953 Hooker sold the land back to the city for 1 dollar. In the process, they wrote into the agreement a warning that the land around the dumping area should be sealed off. This legal clause in the agreement would presumably protect Hooker from any future lawsuits. The pit was originally lined with clay, and afterwards filled with dirt to protect nearby residents from any effects of the toxic chemicals buried beneath. What could possibly go wrong?
After the city purchased the land, an elementary school and about 100 homes were built on the site as it grew to become a modest working class community. In the years that followed, residents reported that there were strange odors in some of their basements, and some children received unexplained burns on their skin after playing in the schoolyard. In 1976, there was a large amount of rainfall and a record blizzard, which caused some of the chemicals to migrate to the surface. Two reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette tested several sump pumps and found that there were toxic chemicals in them, but the matter still remained quiet.
Enter Lois Gibbs. Gibbs was a resident in one of the homes in the area, and she was concerned that her son Michael was constantly sick. She read in one of the local publications about the history of Love Canal and then went to the school board to request that her son be transferred. The school board denied her request, stating that if Michael was allowed to be transferred, then many more families would ask to have their children transferred as well. And one irate housewife should not be allowed to dictate policy. Hmmm. Lois Gibbs then went door to door gathering information about the health of the residents and what she found was shocking. The residents reported an alarming rate of birth defects, miscarriages, and illnesses. Gibbs led a petition drive to draw attention to the health problems and get the school closed. Gibbs formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association, and in 1978 did a survey which found that 56% of children born between 1974 and 1978 had birth defects.
Over the next two years, residents led by Lois Gibbs battled state and federal officials for the resources to evacuate all the families that were in the danger zone. First, New York state health commissioner Dr. Robert Whalen declared the area hazardous and ordered the school to be closed. However, only families in the immediate zone along with pregnant women and families with children under age 2 were allowed to leave. Evidence of toxins continued to be found on the surface, which included pesticides, chemical warfare substances, and radioactive materials left over from the Manhattan Project. In a dramatic showdown between the EPA and the residents, in May 1980 Gibbs' group essentially kidnapped two EPA officials and refused to let them leave unless promises were made to evacuate the residents that wanted to leave. President Carter eventually signed an appropriate from the federal government so that all the families in the area could leave.
In the aftermath of the Love Canal crisis, nearly all of the residents left and the houses were demolished. Lois Gibbs has continued her work helping to organize communities who are facing Love Canal-like environmental disasters.
One important step the federal government took from Love Canal was to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This act is better known as the Superfund Act, which taxes chemical and petroleum companies and provides the funds to clean up toxic waste sites as they are discovered. More than 1000 sites have been designated as Superfund sites to be cleaned up. While the Superfund Act had the best of intentions, the government's record of cleaning up the sites hasn't been great. Many of the sites remain polluted today, and Congress has not reauthorized the part of the law that taxes the corporations. The Superfund trust fund ran out of money in 2004, and now the EPA must rely on general taxpayer funds so resources are limited to perform the cleanups. In addition, many of the sites have lengthy and expensive litigation, meaning funds that could be used for cleaning up toxic waste are going to lawyers instead.