Love Canal | 1978 The toxic Niagara Falls neighborhood that became the nation's first Superfund site
56 percent of neighborhood children born from 1974-1978 had birth defects Is History Repeating Itself in the 21st Century?
Date: Permanent evacuation 1978 - 1981
The chemical poisoning of the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY is a textbook example of how militant citizen advocacy can eventually fight the powers of industrial malfeasance to a tie. Love Canal was a blue collar neighborhood of about 800 homes in Niagara Falls, NY, named after a failed early 20th Century canal project. For several decades, municipalities and then various chemical companies dumped 21,000 tons of toxic materials into the empty canal. The site was covered over and became a working class subdivision.
Over the years poisons seeped into the soil, water, schools and playgrounds and bubbled into basements, causing extremely high incidents of birth defects. After decades of obstruction, denial and intimidation on the part of the companies and authorities, grass roots efforts partially succeeded in attracting national attention in the late 1970's. Eventually, Love Canal became the first Superfund site.
See Timeline for more.
Love Canal is an aborted canal project branching off of the Niagara River about four miles south of Niagara Falls. It is also the name of a fifteen-acre, working-class neighborhood of around 800 single-family homes built directly adjacent to the canal. The ill-fated saga began in the 1910's when a failed visionary named William T. Love abandoned his attempt to dig a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers for the purpose of generating cheap electricity. But sometimes, visionaries are simply hallucinating.
1920: When Hooker abandoned the canal for economic reasons in 1920, the area became a dumping ground for municipal and industrial waste. In the 1940s (with government approval), the Hooker Chemical Company began dumping its far more toxic chemical waste into the canal and covering it with dirt. The canal and environs eventually accumulatied around 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals. A dozen or more of the chemical are carcinogens, including halogenated organics, chlorobenzenes, and dioxin among them.
1953: Hooker capped the 16-acre hazardous waste landfill with clay and sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1.00. Based on their clear knowledge of what was buried there, Hooker made sure to absolve itself of any future liability by including a warning in the property deed. The warning was ignored and a school was built, along with housing for the lower middle class workers who drove the post WWII boom. Caveat emptor, casus fortuitus.
Residents soon began complaining of unusual events, such as exploding rocks, strange odors and blue goo that bubbled up into basements. Simultaneously, medical problems appeared among the residents: high rates of asthma, miscarriages, mental disabilities and other health problems. But the complaints were cautious, as most residents worked at nearby chemical and industrial plants. Those employers were the philosophical heirs of Hooker Chemical.
1978: Public awareness of the disaster unfolded in the late 1970s when news reporters and grassroots door-to-door health surveys began to reveal way high levels of inexplicable illnesses in the neighborhood: epilepsy, asthma, migraines, nephrosis and extremely high levels of birth defects and miscarriages in the Love Canal neighborhood. As it turns out, consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table in the canal and caused the chemicals to leach through sewer systems into the basements and yards of Love Canal residents.
The chemical devil's broth also gurgled up into the playground of the elementary school built directly over the canal. New York State officials distinguished themselves by their apathy, dismissing the claims of the neighborhood activists and referring to them publicly as hysterical housewives. Ultimately, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency in 1978 and had the federal government relocate 239 families. This left 700 families who federal officials viewed as being at insufficient risk to warrant relocation, even though tests conducted by the NYS Department of Health revealed that toxic substances were leaching into their homes. After another hard battle, public pressure forced Carter to declare a second state of emergency in 1981, during which the remaining families were relocated. The total cost for relocation of all the families was $17 million.
As the Grandmother** of the Superfund, Love Canal stands as a rapidly fading symbol of the kinds of toxic waste disasters that would come to light in the near future. There has been some progress in this regard, with polluters occasionally paying for their crimes and footing the bill for cleanup. Mostly when they are forced to. The demonizing of the complainers never ever changes: if you want jobs, you'll learn to put up with a few dead kids.
* 56% of the neighborhood children born from 1974 to 1978 had birth defects.
**The majority of the effort to find justice for the residents was shouldered by housewives, hence "grandmother" of Superfund sites.
Oct 2015 - NY APPEALS COURT ALLOWS NON-COMPLIANCE LAWSUIT TO PROCEED
(Abbo-Bradley v. City of Niagara Falls)
A 2011 sewer excavation project revealed that some of the "signature" Love Canal toxins were still present in the area. In a series of events remarkably like the original series of events, the information was reported to the City of Niagra Falls but not the new residents of Love Canal. The lawsuit that eventually ensued accuses the City of failing to remediate the chemical stew. The plaintiffs maintain they are now suffering from a new round of birth defects, cancer, heart disease and reproductive disorders.
In spite of assurances by those mysterious folks known as "the authorities", homeowners who were attracted to the low real estate prices in the remains of Love Canal are experiencing new health problems. Residents who purchased homes at rock bottom prices a decade ago report miscarriage, unexplained cysts and other health incidents.