Love Canal

Love Canal

Love Canal, section of Niagara Falls, N.Y., that formerly contained a canal that was used as chemical disposal site. In the 1940s and 50s the empty canal was used by a chemical and plastics company to dump nearly 20,000 tons (c.18,000 metric tons) of toxic waste; the waste was sealed in metal drums in a manner that has since been declared illegal. The canal was then filled in and the land given to the expanding city of Niagara Falls by the chemical company. Housing and an elementary school were built on the site. By the late 1970s several hazardous chemicals had leaked through their drums and risen to the surface. Investigations confirmed the existence of toxins in the soil and determined that they were responsible for the area's unusually high rates of birth defects, miscarriages, cancer, illness, and chromosome damage. Families were evacuated from the area in 1978, and in 1980 the Love Canal area was declared a national emergency.

The disaster led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency's "Superfund," which makes responsible parties liable for the cleanup of environmental hazards. More than $20,000,000 in settlement damages was paid by the chemical company and the city of Niagara Falls to a group of former residents. The company also agreed in 1994 to pay New York state $98 million and in 1995 to pay the federal government $129 million toward the costs incurred during the cleanup of the area. The evacuated neighborhood was repopulated in the 1990s after the cleanup was completed.

Love Canal is a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, United States of America (USA), which became the subject of national and international attention and controversy following the discovery of 21,000 tons of toxic waste buried beneath the neighborhood. 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. The south shore of the Niagara River in this area is Grand Island.

The Niagara Falls School Board chose to construct a school on a retired toxic waste dump, and the City of Niagara Falls permitted the building of homes and rental units on this property. The development released the chemical waste, leading to a public health emergency, an urban planning scandal, and a finding of negligence by the former owner. In the words of a state health commissioner, "Among its legacies, Love Canal will likely long endure as a 'national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations.

Early history

The name Love Canal came from the last name of William T. Love, who in the early 1890s envisioned a canal connecting the two levels of the Niagara River separated by Niagara Falls. He believed it would serve the area's burgeoning industries with much needed hydroelectricity; however, the power scheme was never completed due to limitations of DC power transmission, and Tesla's introduction of alternating current or AC.

After 1892, Love's plan changed to incorporate a shipping lane that would bypass the Niagara Falls. He began to envision a perfect urban area called "Model City" and prepared a plan that called for the construction of a vast community of beautiful parks and homes. Unfortunately for Love, his plan was never realized. He was barely able to start digging the canal and build a few streets and homes before his money ran out. Only one mile (1.6 km) of the canal, about wide and deep, stretching northward from the Niagara River, was ever dug. (For one solution to the falls trans-shipment problem, see Welland Canal.)

With the project abandoned, the canal gradually filled with water. The local children swam there in the summer and skated in the winter. At some time in the 1920s, the canal became a dumping site for the municipality of Niagara Falls. By the 1940s, a company by the name of Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation began a search for a dump to store the increasing amount of chemical waste it was producing. Finding Love Canal ideal, Hooker Chemical made arrangements with the local power company, then-owner of the site, to dump its waste there. They prepared the canal for the waste by draining it and lining it with clay. Into this site, Hooker began placing fifty-five gallon metal barrels. In 1947, Hooker bought the land outright.

The Love Canal disaster

Sale of the site

At the time of the closure, Niagara Falls' population had begun to expand. The local school board was desperate for land, and attempted to purchase an area of expensive property from Hooker Chemical that had not yet been used to bury toxic waste. The corporation refused to sell on the grounds of safety, and took members of the school board to the canal and drilled several bore holes through the clay, showing that there were toxic chemicals below the surface. However, the board refused to capitulate. Eventually, faced with 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, Hooker included a seventeen line caveat that explained the dangers of building on the site:

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.

Construction of the 99th Street School

Shortly thereafter, the board began construction on the 99th Street School in its originally intended location. However, the building site was forced to relocate when contractors unearthed two pits filled with chemicals. The new location was directly on top of the former landfill, and during construction of the school, contractors broke through the clay seal that Hooker had installed to contain the chemical waste.

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. While building the gravel sewer beds, construction efforts broke through the clay seal, again breaching the walls of the canal. Hence, the buried chemicals had a further opportunity to migrate and seep from the canal. The subsequent construction of the LaSalle Expressway restricted groundwater from flowing to the Niagara River. Following the exceptionally wet winter and spring of 1977, the elevated expressway turned the breached canal into an overflowing pool.

Health problems, activism, and site cleanup

In 1978, Lois Gibbs, a local mother and president of the Love Canal Homeowners' Association, began to wonder if her children's recurring epilepsy, asthma, and urinary tract infections were connected to their exposure to leaking chemical waste. Gibbs later discovered that her neighborhood sat on top of 21,000 tons of buried chemical waste, the now infamous Love Canal.

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. Although city officials were brought to investigate the area, they did not act to solve the problem.

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 a birth defect.

With further investigation, Gibbs discovered the chemical danger of the adjacent canal. This began her organization's three year effort to demonstrate that the toxins buried by Hooker Chemical were 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 members of government. These opponents 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."

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.

State of emergency

The lack of public interest in Love Canal made matters worse for the homeowners' association, which now battled two organizations spending vast amounts of money to disprove negligence. Initially, members of the organization 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." On August 7, 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, and those living closest to the site were relocated.

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. Geologists were recruited to determine whether underground swales were responsible for carrying the chemicals to the surrounding residential areas. Once there, they explained, 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. Other studies were unable to find harm. The National Research Council surveyed Love Canal health studies in 1991. 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 for cleanup work at the Love Canal Site. After growing evidence and two years' effort by Lois Gibbs and other residents, President Carter declared a federal state of emergency at Love Canal on May 21, 1980, and the EPA agreed to evacuate 700 families temporarily. 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, that holds polluters accountable for their damages. 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.


Today, houses in the residential areas on the east and west sides of the canal have been demolished. All that is left on the west side are abandoned residential streets. Some older east side residents, whose houses stand alone in the demolished neighborhood, chose to stay. The neighborhood just north of the canal remained and was refurbished and resettled.

Though the containment area is still enforced, new development began in the early 1990s. Recreational buildings have been built against a chain-link fence that keeps the toxic area separated from the safe area. The neighborhood has been renamed Black Creek Village, and many families have now chosen to live there.

Love Canal, along with Times Beach, Missouri, share a special place 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 much more commonly referred to as "Superfund" because of the fund established within the act to help the clean-up of toxically polluted residential locations such as Love Canal.

In popular culture

The Love Canal disaster forms a major plot strand in the Joyce Carol Oates 2004 novel The Falls.

A made-for-TV movie entitled Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal was made in 1982 and based on the true Love Canal story. A documentary entitled In Our Own Backyard was released in the U.S. in 1983.

The punk band Flipper recorded a song entitled "Love Canal", a graphic account of the residents' ordeal.

The NUMB3RS episode "Waste Not" is loosely based on this incident.

In the 1982 film Tootsie, the character played by Bill Murray has written a play called Return to Love Canal, and Dustin Hoffman's character dresses as a woman in order to fund the play (and his subsequent role in the play), leading Sydney Pollack's character to comment "Nobody wants to pay twenty dollars to watch people living next to chemical waste! They can see that in New Jersey!"

In the movie Erin Brockovich, the Ed Masry character refers to the Love Canal as a warning of a prior case in which the plaintiffs still had not seen the restitution money they had sought.

In his graphic novel "In The Shadow Of No Towers" Art Spiegelman states that after 9/11 "Lower Manhattan's air is a witch's brew that makes Love Canal seem like a health spa."

In the Monolith video game Blood II: The Chosen, there is a level named "Love Canal".

The Styx song "Heavy Metal Poisoning" from the album Kilroy Was Here makes reference to "A toxic wasteland / in the Love Canal".

In the Sci Fi Channel's film Crimson Force, the character Shara refers to her genitalia as a "love canal", which is a triple entendre since romantic relations with Martian females prove to be fatal for human men, as well as referencing the once held belief that there were canals on Mars.


See also

External links

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