The Love Canal Tragedy
"The Love Canal Tragedy"
By: Eckardt C. Beck
Date: January 1979
Source: Beck, Eckardt C. "The Love Canal Tragedy." EPA Journal. (January 1979).
About the Author: Eckardt Beck served as Administrator of the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region II from 1977–1979. As Administrator, he was responsible for all environmental programs established under federal legislation. Prior to this assignment, he acted as the EPA's Deputy Assistant Administrator for Water Planning and Standards, where he managed the nation's industrial water pollution cleanup program. Beck's educational background involved many aspects of public health, including a master's degree in Public Administration from New York University and graduate work in Epidemiology and Public Health (Yale University) as well as in Air Pollution Administration (University of Southern California).
A few names conjure up images of man-made environmental disasters. Bhopal is one example; another is Love Canal. The catastrophe of Love Canal also exemplifies the dangers of unrestricted dumping of chemicals. Sadly, Love Canal is not an isolated case. Many chemical dump sites exist. However, few become subdivisions.
Love Canal took its name from William T. Love, who planned to construct a canal to connect the upper and lower Niagara Rivers, near Niagara Falls. The canal would supply power to a new city that he envisioned for the area.
Work on the canal did begin in 1894. Then, Louis Tesla's discovery that allowed electricity to be transmitted over long distances via alternating current negated the need for a nearby source of electrical power. The need for Love Canal vanished and the project was abandoned.
By the 1920s, the portion of the canal that had been built was being used by several chemical companies located in the Niagara Falls area to dispose of unwanted chemicals. Until 1953, a vast amount of chemicals was added to the canal, mainly by Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation. The disposal was virtually unregulated.
In the mid-1950s, the canal—which now contained some 19,000 cubic yards (14,000 square meters) of toxic waste—was covered with dirt. Then, a few years later, land in the vicinity of the landfill was bought from Hooker Chemical by the local school board, who were in need of land for a new elementary school. Hooker had long resisted selling the land. When they capitulated, they sold the land for only one dollar, and included in the sales agreement a seventeen-line caveat that explained the potential danger of building on the site.
The school board began construction of the new school several years later, directly over the top of the landfill. Construction had to be halted and the building relocated when chemical-filled pits were unearthed. Nonetheless, the school was constructed nearby, followed a few years later by construction of sewers to permit construction of housing. Those buying the land on which houses were built were not told of the existence of the landfill. However, it was not long before residents began to complain of objectionable odors and the appearance of unknown substances in their yards. Officials from the City of Niagara Falls investigated some of the complaints, but no action was taken.
By the mid-1970s, residents were becoming alarmed over the high rate of cancer and birth defects among the residents and the large number of illnesses in children attending the elementary school. The tipping point came when a period of heavy rains and excessive snowfalls added a great deal of water to the soil, driving the toxic mixture further away from the canal site.
Attempts by a resident organization to link the illness to the canal were rebuffed by Occidental Petroleum (Hooker Chemical's parent company) and by civic and state governments. The official position was that the chemicals had been adequately contained within the canal and that the illnesses were unrelated.
The school, which was located within the former boundaries of the Hooker plant, was finally closed and demolished. The houses, however, remained standing. Because homeowners were unable to secure financial compensation, as well as being unable to sell their houses and move, many continued to live and suffer in the dwellings.
Despite this frustration, the infamy of Love Canal began to grow. In 1978, U.S. President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal. Still, even that declaration could not secure the funds necessary for relocation of the residents. However, the publicity did spur official investigations. Inspections revealed unacceptable levels of toxic chemicals such as benzene, a known human carcinogen, as well as chloroform, trichloroethene, tetrachloroethene, chlorobenzene, and chlorotoluene. Soil samples collected from sites in the housing development detected more noxious compounds including lindane, benzene and toluene. More than eighty toxic compounds were identified. Geological analyses established that underground formations had directed leachate from the canal underneath many of the houses in the subdivision.
The litany of the toxic loading of Love Canal were elevated levels of miscarriages, birth defects, and occurrences of cancer among the residents, as well as documented chromosome damage.
In response, the Carter White House evacuated all the residents, initially temporarily, and finally, as funds were secured, permanently after purchasing their homes. These were demolished. Some residents in less affected neighborhoods actually chose to remain. In the late 1990s, new development began at Love Canal, away from the contaminated site.
Quite simply, Love Canal is one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history.
But that's not the most disturbing fact.
What is worse is that it cannot be regarded as an isolated event. It could happen again—anywhere in this country—unless we move expeditiously to prevent it.
It is a cruel irony that Love Canal was originally meant to be a dream community. That vision belonged to the man for whom the three-block tract of land on the eastern edge of Niagara Falls, New York, was named—William T. Love.
Love felt that by digging a short canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers, power could be generated cheaply to fuel the industry and homes of his would-be model city.
But despite considerable backing, Love's project was unable to endure the one-two punch of fluctuations in the economy and Louis Tesla's discovery of how to economically transmit electricity over great distances by means of an alternating current.
By 1910, the dream was shattered. All that was left to commemorate Love's hope was a partial ditch where construction of the canal had begun.
In the 1920s the seeds of a genuine nightmare were planted. The canal was turned into a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite.
Landfills can of course be an environmentally acceptable method of hazardous waste disposal, assuming they are properly sited, managed, and regulated. Love Canal will always remain a perfect historical example of how not to run such an operation.
In 1953, the Hooker Chemical Company, then the owners and operators of the property, covered the canal with earth and sold it to the city for one dollar.
It was a bad buy.
In the late 1950s, about 100 homes and a school were built at the site. Perhaps it wasn't William T. Love's model city, but it was a solid, working-class community. For a while.
On the first day of August, 1978, the lead paragraph of a front-page story in the New York Times read:
NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.—Twenty five years after the Hooker Chemical Company stopped using the Love Canal here as an industrial dump, 82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens, have been percolating upward through the soil, their drum containers rotting and leaching their contents into the backyards and basements of 100 homes and a public school built on the banks of the canal.
In an article prepared for the February, 1978 EPA Journal, I wrote, regarding chemical dumpsites in general, that "even though some of these landfills have been closed down, they may stand like ticking time bombs." Just months later, Love Canal exploded.
The explosion was triggered by a record amount of rainfall. Shortly thereafter, the leaching began.
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.
And then there were the birth defects. The New York State Health Department is continuing an investigation into a disturbingly high rate of miscarriages, along with five birth-defect cases detected thus far in the area.
I recall talking with the father of one the children with birth defects. "I heard someone from the press saying that there were only five cases of birth defects here," he told me. "When you go back to your people at EPA, please don't use the phrase 'only five cases.' People must realize that this is a tiny community. Five birth defect cases here is terrifying."
A large percentage of people in Love Canal are also being closely observed because of detected high white-blood-cell counts, a possible precursor of leukemia.
When the citizens of Love Canal were finally evacuated from their homes and their neighborhood, pregnant women and infants were deliberately among the first to be taken out.
"We knew they put chemicals into the canal and filled it over," said one woman, a long-time resident of the Canal area, "but we had no idea the chemicals would invade our homes. We're worried sick about the grandchildren and their children."
Two of this woman's four grandchildren have birth defects. The children were born and raised in the Love Canal community. A granddaughter was born deaf with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and slight retardation. A grandson was born with an eye defect.
Of the chemicals which comprise the brew seeping through the ground and into homes at Love Canal, one of the most prevalent is benzene—a known human carcinogen, and one detected in high concentrations. But the residents characterize things more simply.
"I've got this slop everywhere," said another man who lives at Love Canal. His daughter also suffers from a congenital defect.
On August 7, New York Governor Hugh Carey announced to the residents of the Canal that the State Government would purchase the homes affected by chemicals.
On that same day, President Carter approved emergency financial aid for the Love Canal area (the first emergency funds ever to be approved for something other than a "natural" disaster), and the U.S. Senate approved a "sense of Congress" amendment saying that Federal aid should be forthcoming to relieve the serious environmental disaster which had occurred.
By the month's end, 98 families had already been evacuated. Another 46 had found temporary housing. Soon after, all families would be gone from the most contaminated areas—a total of 221 families have moved or agreed to be moved.
State figures show more than 200 purchase offers for homes have been made, totaling nearly $7 million.
A plan is being set in motion now to implement technical procedures designed to meet the seemingly impossible job of detoxifying the Canal area. The plan calls for a trench system to drain chemicals from the Canal. It is a difficult procedure, and we are keeping our fingers crossed that it will yield some degree of success.
I have been very pleased with the high degree of cooperation in this case among local, State, and Federal governments, and with the swiftness by which the Congress and the President have acted to make funds available.
But this is not really where the story ends.
Quite the contrary.
We suspect that there are hundreds of such chemical dumpsites across this Nation.
Unlike Love Canal, few are situated so close to human settlements. But without a doubt, many of these old dumpsites are time bombs with burning fuses—their contents slowly leaching out. And the next victim cold be a water supply, or a sensitive wetland.
The presence of various types of toxic substances in our environment has become increasingly widespread—a fact that President Carter has called "one of the grimmest discoveries of the modern era."
Chemical sales in the United States now exceed a mind-boggling $112 billion per year, with as many as 70,000 chemical substances in commerce.
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….
Love Canal is symbolic of the havoc that unregulated chemical disposal can cause. While much suffering and death came from Love Canal, the disaster did galvanize opposition to the unregulated environmental disposal of dangerous compounds. In the wake of Love Canal, the U.S. Congress enacted the Superfund legislation holding polluters accountable for cleanup of high-priority sites. Under the Superfund program, over 10,000 toxic dump sites have been identified across the United States. Remediation efforts are underway or planned.
Bryan, Nichol. Love Canal: Pollution Crisis (Environmental Disasters). New York: World Almanac Library, 2003.
Sherrow, Victoria. Love Canal: Toxic Waste Tragedy (American Disasters). Berkeley Heights, N.J.: Enslow Publishers, 2001.
"Despite Toxic History, Residents Return to Love Canal." CNN.com. 〈http://www.cnn.com/US/9808/07/love.canal〉 (accessed November 6, 2005).
"Eckardt C. Beck." U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 〈http://www.epa.gov/history/admin/reg02/beck.htm〉 (accessed November 6, 2005).
"Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb." New York State Department of Health. 〈http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/lcanal/lctimbmb.htm/〉 (accessed November 6, 2005).