In 1894 entrepreneur William T. Love began building a canal to connect the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. The canal was to provide water and hydroelectric power for the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Some eighty-four years later, however, the canal became a symbol of the threat of toxic chemical wastes to human communities and the environment, and Love Canal became a moniker for a social movement whose advocates believe that all people are entitled to protection from such hazards.
Love sold his partially completed sixteen-acre canal at public auction in 1947. There was a nationwide depression that had left him short of funds, and the invention of alternating electrical current had rendered his hydroelectric project obsolete. Hooker Chemicals and Plastic Corporation (later known as Hooker Chemical Corporation, and more recently as Occidental Chemical Corporation or OxyChem) bought the site after determining it was isolated and sparsely populated at the time and had an impermeable clay substrate, which made it a good location for a chemical waste landfill. According to New York state officials, the city of Niagara Falls and some federal agencies (including the military) regularly dumped chemical and other wastes at the site, in addition to the approximately 21,800 tons of chemical wastes dumped by Hooker until 1952. The company sold the site for one dollar in 1953 to the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which intended to eventually construct a grade school and playground on it.
Subsequent events ignited controversy over who—Hooker or the Niagara Falls Board of Education—was legally responsible for the exposure of the public to the chemical wastes and the resulting illnesses experienced by families who resided in the area. Despite the restrictions and risk stipulations in the deed conveyed to the Board of Education by Hooker, the Board decided to develop the land above the fill site and its surrounding area. The Board authorized construction of an elementary school on the site in 1955, the city constructed a sewer line through the canal in 1960, and developers constructed homes and streets next to the site. The toxic chemicals stored there eventually seeped from their ruptured and deteriorated containers into the soil, basements, and storm sewers. In April 1978, Michael Brown, a reporter for the Niagara Gazette, wrote a series of articles on hazardous wastes in the Niagara Falls area. By August 1978, the New York health commissioner declared a state of emergency in the area, and 239 families were evacuated. Five days later President Jimmy Carter approved emergency financial aid to permanently relocate these families. In March 1980 the president declared a state of emergency at Love Canal and funded the permanent evacuation and relocation of an additional 780 families. Brown drew national attention to the disaster in his 1980 book Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals.
State and federal investigations into the conditions at the landfill identified 248 different chemicals and 82 chemical compounds, 11 of which were known carcinogens. These toxins included benzene, toluene, chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, lindane, and trichlorophenol that was contaminated with the carcinogen dioxin. Residents exposed to these and other chemicals reported miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, and asthmatic, urinary, and convulsive disorders. Beginning in 1979, residents initiated a series of lawsuits against Hooker, the city, the Board of Education, and several public agencies. In April 1980 the State of New York filed a $635 million lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum (OxyChem’s parent company) and its two subsidiaries, charging that the companies were responsible for the Love Canal disaster. The New York Supreme Court announced three years later a $20 million settlement of the 1,337 claims filed. Occidental Petroleum agreed in 1989 and later paid the Environmental Protection Agency $129 million for cleanup costs.
Epidemiological evidence of chemical exposure causing abnormal rates of acute and chronic illness has been controversial. Studies conducted by scientists and by the New York State Department of Health as recently as 1997 found that the residents who lived closest to the canal experienced rates of certain diseases (for example, liver disorders and lymphomas, leukemia, and several other cancers) that were no different from those of control groups who lived elsewhere in the county and in upstate New York. Other findings showed, however, that Love Canal residents had higher rates of spontaneous abortions, childhood disorders, lung and respiratory disorders, and female genitourinary cancers.
In 1988, based on its own five-year study and further investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Department of Health concluded that a segment of the canal area was again habitable and proposed to resettle the area. Lois Gibbs, who had organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978 and whose son had attended the contaminated elementary school, energized the public to fight against the state’s effort to move families back to the canal area. In 1981 Gibbs founded the Citizens’ Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes (later renamed as the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice).
The Citizens’ Clearinghouse became a national resource that provided guidance and education to many of the grassroots groups and people of color who opposed chemical wastes and emissions in their communities and neighborhoods. These groups and their supporters helped define the early agenda of the American environmental justice movement, and they drew media and political attention to socioeconomic inequities (e.g., environmental racism) associated with waste facility siting, industrial emissions, and regulatory enforcement. Their collective efforts galvanized public awareness of these issues during the 1980s and 1990s and bridged other major social movements involving civil rights, feminism, and worker safety.
SEE ALSO Disaster Management; Environmental Impact Assessment; Justice; Pollution; Racism; Toxic Waste
Axelrod, David. 1981. Love Canal: A Special Report to the Governor and Legislature: April 1981. Albany, NY: New York State Department of Public Health. http://www.health.state.ny.us/nysdoh/lcanal/lcreport.htm.
Brown, Michael Harold. 1980. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York: Pantheon.
Bullard, Robert D. 1993. Anatomy of Environmental Racism and the Environmental Justice Movement. In Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots, ed. Robert D. Bullard, 15–39. Boston: South End Press.
Center for Health, Environment, and Justice. http://www.chej.org/.
Domokos-Bays, Becky L. 1997. The Role of the Citizen’s Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes as an Agent of Adult Education in the Environmental Justice Movement from 1981–1995. PhD diss., Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.
Fletcher, Thomas H. 2003. From Love Canal to Environmental Justice: The Politics of Hazardous Waste on the Canada–U.S. Border. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview.
Gibbs, Lois Marie. 1998. Love Canal: The Story Continues. Rev. ed. Gabriola Island, British Columbia: New Society.
Mazur, Allan. 1998. A Hazardous Inquiry: The Rashomon Effect at Love Canal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
New York State Department of Health. September 2002. Love Canal Follow-up Health Study—September 2002. Albany, NY:Author.
Niagara Gazette. 1980. Love Canal Chronology. May 23.
Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science. 2004. Love Canal—An Introduction Cleveland, OH: Case Western Reserve University.
Taylor, Dorceta. 2000. The Rise of the Environmental Justice Paradigm. American Behavioral Scientist 43 (4): 508–580.
University Archives. 1998. Love Canal Collection. Buffalo:University of New York at Buffalo, University Libraries.
Whalen, Robert P. 1978. Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb, A Special Report to the Governor and Legislature: September 1978. Albany, NY: New York State Department of Health.
John K. Thomas
Probably the most infamous of the nation's hazardous waste sites, the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, was largely evacuated of its residents in 1980 after testing revealed high levels of toxic chemicals and genetic damage.
Between 1942 and 1953, the Olin Corporation and the Hooker Chemical Corporation buried over 20,000 tons of deadly chemical waste in the canal, much of which is known to be capable of causing cancer , birth defects , miscarriages, and other health disorders. In 1953, Hooker deeded the land to the local board of education but did not clearly warn of the deadly nature of the chemicals buried there, even when homes and playgrounds were built in the area.
The seriousness of the situation became apparent in 1976, when years of unusually heavy rains raised the water table and flooded basements. As a result, houses began to reek of chemicals, and children and pets experienced chemical burns on their feet. Plants, trees, gardens, and even some pets died.
Soon neighborhood residents began to experience an extraordinarily high number of illnesses, including cancer, miscarriages, and deformities in infants. Alarmed by the situation, and frustrated by inaction on the part of local, state, and federal governments, a 27-year-old housewife named Lois Gibbs began to organize her neighbors. In 1978 they formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association and began a two-year fight to have the government relocate them into another area.
In August 1978 the New York State Health Commissioner recommended that pregnant women and young children be evacuated from the area, and subsequent studies documented the extraordinarily high rate of birth defects, miscarriages, genetic damage and other health affects. In 1979, for example, of 17 pregnant women in the neighborhood, only two gave birth to normal children. Four had miscarriages, two suffered stillbirths, and nine had babies with defects.
Eventually, the state of New York declared the area "a grave and imminent peril" to human health. Several hundred families were moved out of the area, and the others were advised to leave. The school was closed and barbed wire placed around it. In October 1980 President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a national disaster area.
In the end, some 60 families decided to remain in their homes, rejecting the government's offer to buy their properties. The cost for the cleanup of the area has been estimated at $250 million. Ironically, twelve years after the neighborhood was abandoned, the state of New York approved plans to allow families to move back to the area, and homes were allowed to be sold.
Love Canal is not the only hazardous waste site in the country that has become a threat to humans--only the best known. Indeed, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that up to 2,000 hazardous waste disposal sites in the United States may pose "significant risks to human health or the environment," and has called the toxic waste problem "one of the most serious problems the nation has ever faced."
[Lewis G. Regenstein ]
Gibbs, Lois. Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982.
Regenstein, L. G. How to Survive in America the Poisoned. Washington, DC: Acropolis Books, 1982.
Brown, M. H. "Love Canal Revisited." Amicus Journal 10 (Summer 1988): 37–44.
Kadlecek, M. "Love Canal—10 Years Later." Conservationist 43 (November-December 1988): 40–43.
——. "A Toxic Ghost Town: Ten Years Later, Scientists Are Still Assessing the Damage From Love Canal." The Atlantic 263 (July 1989): 23–26.
Love Canal is an abandoned canal in Niagara County, New York, where a huge amount of toxic waste was buried. The waste was composed of at least 300 different chemicals, totaling an estimated 20,000 metric tons. The existence of the waste was discovered in the 1970s when families living in homes subsequently built next to the site found chemical wastes seeping up through the ground into their basements, forcing them to eventually abandon their homes.
Love Canal was used from the 1940s through the 1950s by the Hooker Chemical Company and the city of Niagara Falls, among others, to dispose of their hazardous and municipal wastes and other refuse. The canal was surrounded by clay and was thought at the time to be a safe place for disposal—and, in fact, burying chemicals in the canal was probably safer than many other methods and sites used for chemical disposal at the time. In 1953, the Niagara Falls Board of Education bought the land-fill for $1 and constructed an elementary school with playing fields on the site. Roads and sewer lines were added and, in the early 1970s, single-family homes were built adjacent to the site.
Following a couple of heavy rains in the mid-1970s, the canal flooded and chemicals were observed on the surface of the site and in the basements of houses abutting the site. Newspaper coverage, investigations by the State of New York and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, combined with pressure from the district's U.S. congressional representative and outrage on the part of local residents, led to the declaration of a health emergency involving "great and imminent peril to the health of the general public." Ultimately, in August, 1978, a decision was made by Governor Hugh Carey, supported by the White House, to evacuate the residents and purchase 240 homes surrounding the site. Shortly thereafter, the residents of nearby homes that did not immediately abut the site also became concerned about their health and conducted a health survey that purported to show an increase in the occurrence of various diseases and problems such as birth defects and miscarriages, which were attributed to chemical exposures. A great controversy ensued over whether the observations were real or reflected normal rates of such problems, and whether chemical exposures had, in fact, occurred. Eventually, political pressure resulted in families being given an opportunity to leave and have their homes purchased by the State. About 70 homes remained occupied in 1989 by families who chose not to move.
The controversy at Love Canal followed on the heels of the heightened awareness that occurred in the 1960s about environmental contamination, and it contributed to public and regulatory concern about hazardous wastes, waste disposal, and disclosure of such practices. Such concerns led Congress to pass the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund bill, in 1980. When CERCLA was passed, few were aware of the extent of the problem potentially created by years of inappropriate or inadequate hazardous waste disposal practices. Since implementing CERCLA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 40,000 potentially contaminated "Superfund" sites.
(see also: Environmental Determinants of Health; Environmental Protection Agency; Risk Assessment, Risk Management; Toxic Substances Control Act; Toxicology )
Levine, A. (1982). Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Mazur, A. (1998). A Hazardous Inquiry: The Rashemon Effect at Love Canal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
LOVE CANAL has become synonymous with environmental mismanagement and was why the federal government created the Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund in 1980 to pay for the cleanup of environmental disasters. In the 1890s William Love wanted to build a town near Niagara Falls in upstate New York. He designed a canal to connect two branches of the Niagara River and provide the town with electricity from the power of the rapids just before the falls. But economic difficulties forced Love to abandon the project. All that was left was the canal, which was acquired by Niagara Falls in 1927.
Around 1940 the city allowed the Hooker Chemical Company to use the canal as a dumping ground for chemical waste. For the next thirteen years Hooker buried more than twenty thousand tons of chemicals, including
dioxin. In 1953 Niagara Falls announced it intended to build an elementary school on the canal site. After the school was built, parents reported burns on children who played in the area. By the mid-1970s Love Canal's residents were reporting cases of miscarriages, birth defects, liver abnormalities, and cancer. In 1978 the Love Canal Homeowners Association demanded action and relief. The federal government and the state of New York purchased over eight hundred houses and relocated one thousand families. Legal action also began, as the federal government, Hooker Chemical, and the city of Niagara Falls fought over liability issues. In 1995 Hooker agreed to pay the Superfund and the Federal Emergency Management Agency a total of $129 million for the environmental cleanup of the site.
Ferrell, O. C., and John Fraedrich. Business Ethics. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991.