September 30, 2020

Love Gone Wrong: The Environmental Disaster of the Love Canal

Home is where you should feel the safest. Your home should be a bastion, weathering any storm and protecting your loved ones from harm. Your community is ideally an extension of that protection. Communities keep their streets well-lit to dispel darkness. Communities provide parks and schools to care for the children that dwell there.

But what if your community were harming you? What if your home were slowly poisoning your loved ones? That may seem like the plot for a horror movie, but over 30 years ago, it was the real situation of the people of Love Canal, Niagara Falls in upstate New York.

Digging a Disaster

Love Canal was originally an actual canal, the result of a failed endeavor of a Mr. William T. Love. In 1834, the eponymous Mr. Love began a project to link the upper and lower Niagara River by digging the canal and harnessing its hydroelectric power. The project officially died in the ’20s, when it became a swimming hole and later on a dumpsite.

But the real threat started in 1942 when the Hooker Chemical Company received permission from the U.S. government to begin using the canal as a dumpsite for its chemical waste. This was before modern and efficient hazardous waste collection was strictly enforced. The company tossed a total of approximately 21,000 tons of deadly chemicals and toxic compounds into the canal over 11 years. These included at least a dozen known carcinogens with dioxin, chlorobenzenes, and halogenated organics as the most prominent toxins.

In 1953, Hooker Chemical covered up the waste with a topping of clay and sold the entire lot to the school board of Niagara Falls for a single dollar.  Their only warning that they had left behind a sea of chemical sludge was a 17-line disclaimer they inserted in the sale contract.

From Beneath Them, It Devoured

The desperate school board ignored the inadequate disclaimer and built the 99th Street School right in the middle of a chemical wasteland. Contractors for the school and around 800 residential units soon discovered barrels and puddles of mysterious liquids throughout the area.  By the 1970s, nearly a thousand families were living on top of Hooker Chemical’s waste.

Although the chemicals were already seeping out into the ground and water, the true extent of the contamination didn’t become apparent to the residents and to the local government until 1976. Heavy rains from the past three years had allowed the chemicals to burst into people’s basements and backyards.

This prompted local organizations to conduct studies and surveys regarding chemical pollution in the area. They discovered that 56 percent of Love Canal children had been born with birth defects. Further inquiries revealed that a third of the town had damaged chromosomes, a staggering leap from the usual one percent. And other tests showed residents had a 10 percent chance of abnormal liver.

The findings filled the residents with rage, and they demanded that the government relocate them immediately from the horrifying sea of death they had been occupying. The government would only complete the evacuations in 1980, after four years of picketing, scientific evidence, and lobbying.

The tragedy of Love Canal was a wake-up call for many Americans at the time. One of the mothers who lived in the area, Lois Gibbs, found her calling because of the events at the Canal. She founded the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again. There may be a need for such passion for justice and the environment soon because three decades after it first began to consume, the Love Canal is still spewing its poison.