Love Canal, still toxic after 40 years

From ToxicLeaks

History of Love Canal[edit | edit source]

Forty years ago, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter approved the first emergency funds ever used for a reason that wasn’t a hurricane, flood or other U.S. natural disaster. Carter, across a year of tension and tragic revelations about a highly toxic waste dump in New York State, released funds to assist residents of Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls not far from the majestic beauty of the tourist attraction.

Yet they were worlds apart because of decades’ worth of environmental contamination that companies acknowledged and city officials knew about. That didn’t stop them from poisoning a community of sick families living in now-worthless houses who fought back. The activism of those Love Canal residents, and the horrific case of the toxic waste site itself, are credited as the driving force for the 1980 creation of CERCLA, the now-familiar U.S. programs and laws known as Superfund. In that sense, the physical suffering and economic disaster afflicting innocent families four decades ago might be considered a success story – it raised awareness of what Carter then called "one of the grimmest discoveries of the modern era” and changed the country’s approach to environmental crises and industrial-site cleanup.

Love Canal was really a trench some 9,750 feet long, left abandoned when the late-19th century industrialist William Love gave up on his vision for a hydroelectric-powered utopia of modernity. The canal section, from 10 to 25 feet wide, was a swimming hole for neighborhood kids before Hooker Chemical, parent company Occidental Chemical and other industrial entities dumped wastes at the site.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared the site clean in 2004. After some USD$400 million and a 21-year remediation, people moved back into homes renovated through the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency in what was once a 10-block swath of ghost town because of the contamination. Life went on in the new Black Creek Village, although some parts of the Love Canal neighborhood remain barren. Sadly, it didn’t turn out to be the hoped-for happy ending – or an end to the saga at all.

Activists and ‘useless housewife data’[edit | edit source]

According to an initial state report in September 1978, scientists said 82 chemical compounds leached into basements, gardens and playgrounds, identified in their air, water and soil samples. They included benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lindane, a neurotoxin dangerous to humans that has not been manufactured in the U.S. since 1976. Carbon tetrachloride is linked to kidney and liver damage, while trichloroethylene affects the central nervous system with both acute and chronic-cumulative effects. The initial public health priorities focused on miscarriages, birth defects, liver function and blood mercury levels. That’s because a crushing number of Love Canal residents reported pregnancy losses, children born with defects at a disproportionately higher rate, and liver and other cancers, along with respiratory and other illnesses. What’s stunning is how long residents coped with evidence of their exposure – black goo oozing through the basement walls, dead zones in their yards – before acting. In the end it was weather, a historic 1977-1978 blizzard that affected snowmelt and water runoff levels enough for a massive exposure of the toxins that individual homeowners dealt with as early as 1959. These were the same homes Hooker warned city officials against constructing on the site back in 1957.

Still, city officials were in denial, just as they had been when Hooker, after dumping chemicals from 1942 to 1953, openly reported their activity before selling the land to the city for $1. Niagara Falls officials made a concession when building a new school directly over it – they moved it slightly, but left the playground directly over the toxins – and continued to dismiss health and safety fears. Even after the blizzard forced attention to blocks and blocks of contamination, officials said it was an aesthetic problem but any concerns beyond the chemical odors and off-color muck were put down to resident hysteria.

One of those residents, Lois Gibbs, became angry after school officials denied her son a transfer she requested because of health concerns. As president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, she began organizing her neighbors to force action and collected data on the high incidence of illness but officials initially scoffed and called it “useless housewife data.” It would be only a few months later when authorities began recommending the immediate evacuation of the neighborhood’s pregnant women and all children under age 2. As time went on, evacuation was deemed necessary for the first ring of all later-destroyed houses near the canal. All told, there were 833 families relocated after they refused to accept less, at one point briefly holding EPA officials “hostage” as FBI agents monitored the activists.

Gibbs became the founder of the Center for Health Environment & Justice and continued her activism work. In Love Canal, she was joined by people like Elene Thornton and the Concerned Love Canal Renters Association (CLCRA), backed by the NAACP to advocate for affected African American tenants. Together, they forced local officials and the U.S. government to finally take action on the contamination.

U.S. creation of Superfund[edit | edit source]

The Love Canal incident, coupled with the A.L. Taylor site in Kentucky – known as the “Valley of the Drums” for its highly visible industrial waste – spurred the passage of the U.S. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund, enacted on December 11, 1980. It was co-authored by Representative John LaFalce from the Niagara Falls area, and the Love Canal chemical disaster was officially listed as a Superfund cleanup site in 1983.

The legislation allows EPA to clean up sites and when possible, return them to productive use. It also authorizes EPA to hold accountable the companies responsible for needed cleanup or reimbursement. At Love Canal, that required setting up seven different zones and a lengthy process of interventions.

Remediation and repopulation[edit | edit source]

Beginning in 1979, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) began emergency measures to contain the contamination. A permanent collection system to capture leaching toxins was built, a 22-acre clay cap was placed over the dump site, and an activated carbon treatment plant was constructed. The cap was extended to 40 acres in 1984, along with a synthetic membrane and additional 18-inch layer of soil. Adjacent creeks and sewer lines also were cleaned, and perimeter monitoring sites were established for observing any infiltration. In 1988, three of the seven zones were determined to be safe for future commercial and industrial uses, while the other four were deemed to be habitable land. Ultimately, those decisions led to the revitalized Black Creek Village neighborhood. Close site monitoring and reports continue – there and at related Love Canal properties – but the DEC’s most recent reports on Wheatfield are met with skepticism from residents who feel they’re living Love Canal all over again.

Wheatfield: The legacy and lawsuits continue[edit | edit source]

In 2018, new lawsuits are in motion because of Love Canal waste – dumped at another landfill in nearby North Towanda – that wasn’t removed until 2015. It was brought there in 1968, a decade before the environmental catastrophe, when the state’s Department of Transportation moved about 1,600 cubic yards of material during the construction of the LaSalle Expressway, which crossed the canal dump site.

In adjacent Wheatfield, these residents now complain of high cancer rates and medical issues, or their children’s skin burned by orange pond water with no fencing or other safety measures to prevent it. The Wheatfield neighbors dispute the state’s “safe” groundwater findings released in January 2018, and say their own results find contaminants leaching from the 19-acre secondary toxic dump site. Attorneys say that privately obtained tests show as many as 20 toxic chemicals inside homes near the landfill that include cancer-causing dioxin in their kitchens and their bedrooms, not just the basement or yard.

“The type of dioxin we’re seeing is an exact fingerprint of the Love Canal waste,” says Michael G. Stag, a New Orleans attorney working on behalf of the Wheatfield residents. Yet the DEC says there is no off-site contamination from the Love Canal waste at the landfill, and plans a full report in Spring 2018.

Separate lawsuits continue on behalf of original Love Canal families who lost their health, homes and loved ones, with some 1,000 people participating in at least 18 civil suits. To make matters worse, environmental activists fear the chemicals still buried below the surface in what New York officials first called a “public health time bomb” in September 1978. More than 20,000 tons of toxic waste proved too much to move to Wheatfield or any other site. It remains entombed in earth that is still the Love Canal.