Natural and Man-Made Disasters
What was Love Canal?
When Love Canal, a community east of Niagara Falls, New York, made international headlines in August 1978, it was only after the neighborhood had already been the subject of local newspaper stories since 1976. And sadly, more headlines followed, into 1980. What had become clear during these years was that Love Canal was toxic. Community residents had experienced unusually high incidences of cancer, miscarriages, birth defects, and other illnesses. There were also reports that foul odors, oozing sludge, and multicolored pools of substances were emerging from the ground; and children and animals returned from outdoor play with rashes and burns on their skin.
Unbeknownst to the residents, all of these problems were attributable to the history of the site upon which their community had been built. Beginning in 1947 the Hooker Electrochemical Company had used Love Canal, with its clay walls, to dump 21,800 tons of chemical waste. In 1953 the company sold the canal to the Niagara School Board for the sum of one dollar. The deed acknowledged the buried chemicals, although it did not disclose their type or toxicity. A disclaimer protected the firm from future liability. The canal pit was subsequently sealed with a clay cap designed to prevent rainwater from disturbing the chemicals. Grass was planted. Soon Love Canal had become a 15-acre field. The following year, a school was under construction on the site. In 1955 400 elementary school children began attending classes there and playing on the surrounding fields. Development happened fast: roads, sewers, and utility lines crisscrossed the site, disrupting the soil.
While residents began to discern problems as early as 1958, when they complained of nauseating smells and incidences of skin problems, it was not until the mid-1970s that the extent of the hazard became evident. It was then that unusually heavy rainfalls caused chemicals to surface. A portion of the schoolyard collapsed, strange substances seeped into basements, and trees and gardens died. In October 1976 the Niagara Gazette began investigating these problems, but an official investigation did not begin until the following April. By this time, the site was a disaster: toxins were found in storm sewers and basements, exposed chemical drums leaked substances, and air tests detected dangerously high chemical levels in homes. Further testing identified more than 200 different compounds at the site, including 12 carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) and 14 compounds that can affect the brain and central nervous system.
The residents of Love Canal organized, forming citizen groups including the Love Canal Homeowners Association. These groups succeeded in getting media coverage and in pressuring public officials to act. Finally on August 2, 1978, the New York State Health Commissioner declared Love Canal unsafe. Six days later, President Jimmy Carter (1924-) approved emergency assistance and New York governor Hugh Carey announced that funds would be used to purchase homes nearest the canal.
While more than 200 families that were perceived to be in danger were moved, in 1980 problems resurfaced when researchers found that blood tests of residents showed abnormally high chromosome damage. The state recommended that pregnant women and infants be removed from homes—even those that had been certified as safe. In May 1980 conflict ensued between 300 Love Canal homeowners and officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). On May 21, President Carter declared a second emergency at Love Canal. This time the actions were more comprehensive: Almost 800 families were evacuated, and their homes were either destroyed or declared unsafe until further clean-up could be done. Four years later, a new clay cap was installed over the canal. It was also in 1984 that Occidental Petroleum, parent company of the firm that had dumped chemicals in Love Canal, reached a $20-million settlement with residents.