Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper often brings groups of students and community members to Niagara Falls to visit a historic site, with a tragic legacy. Love Canal.
The Environmental Disaster at Love Canal is often referred to as the start of the modern
environmental movement. The events that unfolded at this site in Western New York inspired a
community-led movement that received national attention and is the reason why many important
environmental laws have been passed.
Digging and Filling of a Canal
During the nineteenth century, many canals were built by entrepreneurs to create efficient shipping
routes. One such canal was begun in 1894 by venture capitalist William Love in the Niagara Falls area of
New York State. Before long, an economic depression ruined Love’s financial plans and the partially
completed project was abandoned. Dubbed “Love Canal” by local residents, the partially completed canal
was used by residents as a swimming hole and an ice rink.
In 1942, faced with the need for a place to dispose of toxic waste from the manufacture of chlorinated
hydrocarbons and caustics, the Hooker Electrochemical Corporation (presently Hooker Chemical and
Plastics, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corporation) leased the canal as a waste dump. In 1947,
Hooker bought the canal and the surrounding land. Between 1942 and 1950, more than 21,000 tons of
chemicals, including such potent toxins as benzene, the pesticide Lindane, polychlorinated dioxins, PCBs
and phosphorous, were deposited in the canal, which the company then lined with cement. After fully
utilizing the area’s ability to contain waste, Hooker installed an impermeable cap, with the intention that it
would prevent water from entering the canal and causing seepage of the toxins. The former canal
disappeared from view beneath a layer of fill.
Building of a School and Community atop Hazardous Waste
In the early 1950s the Niagara Falls School Board was confronted with the need to build a new school to
accommodate an increasing population of children. The Board knew that Hooker Chemicals was anxious to get rid of the Love Canal property and began making inquiries to buy it (Hooker has claimed that it resisted and warned the Board of Education that the buried chemicals made the site inappropriate for school construction). In 1953, Hooker Chemical Company sold the Love Canal property to the Niagara FallsSchool Board for $1.00, but the company asserts that it gave in because the Board would otherwise have taken the land by eminent domain. Whether Hooker was as reluctant as it says it was and as assertive in cautioning the Board about the hazards is impossible to determine. Existing minutes of the meetings in question do not fully support Hooker’s version of the proceedings and none of the Board members are still alive. What is clear is that the deed that was negotiated contains a clause exempting Hooker from any “claim, suit or action” due to future human exposure to the buried chemicals. See the deed: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/2c/Hooker_Electrochemical_Quit_Claim_Deed_to_Board_of_Education.pdf
An elementary school was built in the middle of the Love Canal property. The surrounding land was sold by the Board to developers who built 98 homes along the former canal banks and about a thousand additional houses in the Love Canal neighborhood. The construction of the school, houses and associated utilities resulted in the breaching of parts of the canal’s cap and its cement walls. The blizzard of 1977, which resulted in over 30 inches of snow, contributed largely to the leaching of chemical contaminants into the surrounding areas. When the large amount of snow melted, the water table in the Love Canal area rose and pushed toxic chemicals and drums of waste up to the earth’s surface.
The Community Takes Action
Louis Gibbs established the Love Canal Homeowners Association in 1978. This group rallied the neighboring communities around the canal and collected data on health issues residents were experiencing. They pushed the local and federal government to take action and provide them assistance. They protested, and even took EPA officials hostage. Their incredible efforts eventually resulted in President Jimmy Carter declaring a national emergency and evacuation of residents.
Creation of Superfund
The Love Canal tragedy ultimately led to impactful legislation – Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 (CERCLA), or the Superfund program, which holds corporations accountable for the clean up and remediation of hazardous waste sites. Love Canal also initiated the Environmental Justice movement and brought international attention to the fact that a majority of extremely dangerous hazardous waste sites are found in the areas where the most marginalized and vulnerable populations reside.
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