Love Canal Contamination – New York – August 2, 1978

Major health problems arose from a new subdivision on an old industrial site No adequate examination of an old waste dump adjoining Niagara Falls, before a new subdivision was developed, led to a large number of homes being declared uninhabitable.

In the late 1950s, a former industrial site in New York State near Niagara Falls was taken over by the Niagara Falls School Board and an elementary school was built there. Soon after, hundreds of families took up residence in the area. On August 2, 1978, a succession of health hazards arising from old toxic wastes culminated in the evacuation of the whole neighborhood.

Love Canal, so-named after the site’s first developer, William Love, was one of the nation’s worst waste sites. Its history goes back to Love’s dreams at the end of the nineteenth century to build a model community. He was sure that the location, next to the Niagara River, would be very popular. He began construction on a canal that would bypass the cataracts and the falls, linking the Niagara River in this way with Lake Ontario. Hydroelectricity would be produced locally for his new community and the canal would provide transportation. His dreams never came to fruition and his canal was never finished, mainly because of new developments in the transmission of electricity that enabled factories to be located at a distance from their sources of power. Love’s canal remained as a ditch 60 feet wide and 1,300 feet in length.

The site remained a recreational area for many years until it was purchased by the City of Niagara Falls in the 1920s and used as a dump for municipal waste. In the 1940s, the Hooker Electrochemical Company bought the area around the canal, set up a factory on it, and proceeded to add its chemical wastes to the canal. There were few homes in the area at this time and the existence of a bed of impermeable clay five feet below the surface seemed to the Hooker Company to justify its suitability for the dumping of chemical wastes. The company felt that the clay barrier would prevent any toxic materials from reaching the wider water channels. Over the period 1942–1954 about 25,000 tons of chemical wastes, partly in sealed drums, were dumped into the canal. The City of Niagara continued to dump waste there too throughout this period of time.

No one knew at the time but later it was discovered that one component of the Hooker Company’s waste was dioxin, one of the world’s most carcinogenic chemicals, the one that had caused widespread destruction in Sevesco, Italy, two years earlier. The quantity of dioxin deposited in the Love Canal could have been as high as 120 pounds, a huge amount given its toxic strength. In 1954, the Hooker Company sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for the token price of one dollar so that it could build a new school there. Numbers of people had been settling in the area and a school was needed. As part of the agreement of sale, the Hooker Company had the School Board accept responsibility for any chemical wastes deposited on the site, leaving Hooker free from any future liability. The completion of the school provided an incentive for more people to move to the seventy-acre subdivision.

Both school and residences were built on top of the old canal, now a grave for thousands of tons of poisonous wastes. By the early 1970s there were eight hundred single-family homes and 250 apartments there and complaints about toxic wastes that had been surfacing since 1954 caught the attention of both Canadian and New York State governments. Unusually heavy rain and snow falls in 1975 and 1976 raised groundwater levels and things from the old canal surfaced. Fifty-five-gallon drums appeared and oily substances carrying bad odors began to appear around the homes of residents. Complaints exploded, with fears being expressed by everyone both for their health and the risk that their property values were about to plummet. By late 1977, one member of Congress and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became involved and the latter began to examine the basements of the homes closest to the canal.

Hazardous chemicals were found and the New York Department of Health declared the Love Canal area a threat to human health and ordered the fencing of the old landfill site. The school was closed and evacuation of pregnant women and young children began from many of the homes. Health records collected over the previous two years were brought forward and examined. They suggested alarming trends but the accuracy of their links with such local factors as the wastes from the canal could not be established scientifically. The seriousness of the conditions however demanded action. Many of the children born between 1974 and 1978 had birth defects. Miscarriage rates had increased three hundred percent in the same period. Now, as federal and state agencies began to examine the area minutely, pesticides and traces of dioxin were found in the soil. The result was extreme agitation among all the residents.

The community came together and demanded action to deal with the crisis. They finally secured it from Health Commissioner Whalen in Albany who, on August 2, 1978, declared a health emergency, a great and imminent peril to the general public at Love Canal. Whalen recommended that residents avoid using their basements and not eat food grown in their gardens. The earlier moves, fencing off the landfill site and evacuating children and pregnant women, were immediately extended. About 240 homes bordering the canal were purchased by the state with a view to the permanent relocation of those living in them. At the same time, remedial work to contain the wastes from the canal were launched. All of this, laudable as it was, left large numbers of other homes still bordering the canal. Pressure increased from residents for action to protect all who were endangered.

Two developments increased the pressure for more action. Within three months, additional quantities of dioxin were found, this time at some distance west of the canal. The second surprise was the effects of the remedial measures being undertaken. Instead of containing the wastes and limiting their influence the excavation work became accessible to runoff and unexpected quantities flowed into nearby sewers. More homes were purchased by the state and the occupants removed to a new place. About this time intense political debate surfaced, involving local and state authorities and federal agencies, all in relation to how much of the area could be retained for residence. The state concluded that the residential perimeter of the canal was all that need be evacuated. Residents did not agree. They launched legal action and secured the right of temporary relocation from a wider zone.

Meanwhile, the quality of life for remaining residents deteriorated. Homes that had been abandoned and were now separated from the rest of the area by a chain-link fence became a focus for vandals and thieves. Burglaries and fires were common. A further negative factor was a new study of chromosomes in the blood of Love Canal residents by the EPA indicating significant damage. Public protests broke out. On one occasion, federal officials from the EPA were held captive for several hours. Finally, in May of 1980, almost two years after the dramatic events of August 2, 1978, President Carter declared a federal emergency in the Love Canal area, thus clearing the way for the relocation of families still resident in those districts that were farther away from the canal.

Following the declaration of a federal emergency, New York’s Governor Carey created a new agency, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency. It was given the task of restoring things to livable status. Federal money was provided for a thorough cleanup of all toxic wastes. Abandoned homes were removed and intense decontamination work began. By May of 1982 the EPA was convinced that the area was habitable and gradually, over the years that followed, plans were advanced for resettlement. The Hooker Company, by that time known as the Occidental Petroleum Company, despite earlier agreements, was persuaded to carry some of the costs involved. In 1996, over two hundred homes beside the old Love Canal were sold to new occupants. The Love Canal was once more a flourishing community. Despite all of this good work, the history of the canal is not likely to be forgotten. It is a silent reminder of the dangers that can lie in the ground beneath our homes and remain undetected for decades.

The tragic story of Bhopal in India, an environmental disaster, shook the world six years after Love Canal and yet again, two years after Bhopal, in a European country, human error led to a disastrous ruination of life in and near the Rhine River. In November of 1986 a fire broke out in a Sandoz storehouse near Basel, Switzerland. The storehouse contained more than a thousand tons of one hundred different chemicals. The majority of these chemicals were destroyed by the fire but twenty tons entered the Rhine River, destroying life for over two hundred miles.

The fire had been spotted by a patrol officer shortly after midnight. He saw flames shooting upward from one warehouse in the Sandoz Chemical Company’s factory. Many thousands of gallons of water were used in the five hours it took to extinguish the blaze and all of this water, laced with all kinds of toxic chemicals poured into the Rhine River. Virtually the full length of this major European river lay before this stream of poisoned water, all the way to the sea and to all the places en route.

The Rhine River runs through the most populated and most industrialized part of Europe and over most of the twentieth century its pristine waters were so contaminated that its aquatic organisms almost completely disappeared. There are fifty million people living on or very near the river. Things came to a head during the years of World War II as armies crossed the river, further degrading its waters and life forms. Then in 1950 five countries, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Netherlands, and Switzerland, decided to do something about the problem. They formed the International Commission for the Protection of the Rhine.

For some time it had little success. The money needed to clear up the river was unavailable and neither was there the political pressure to make the problem a high priority. It was not until the 1970s when the sorry state of the river began to make news all over the world, crippling Europe’s tourist industry, that billions of dollars began to come in from the nations bordering the Rhine. Pollution controls on industries and cities were tightened and strictly enforced. Industrial and population growth increased concurrently but nevertheless the efforts of the reformers made significant gains and several organisms began to appear.

In summary, it took eight years to restore the Rhine to its former health. The river had been destroyed in one day as the devastating pollution from Basel moved down the river. For three hundred miles the stream of toxic water brought death to the river. Firefighters at the scene of the fire had tried to contain the runoff water but a containment wall collapsed and thirty tons of poisonous chemicals were dumped into the water. There were dyes, herbicides, pesticides, and mercury in the toxic soup. The effects were felt all the way to the sea and they were catastrophic. The Commission felt that everything it had accomplished was destroyed.

Sheep that drank from the river got sick and died. Dead fish were everywhere. Scientists predicted it would take at least twenty years for a recovery. It was the worst case of chemical contamination ever in a European river. The enormity of the tragedy created a sense of urgency among the signatories to the Commission and raised public support to a new height. To take advantage of it a goal was set, the recovery of a salmon population that would thrive all the way from the sea to Basel. This goal was to be achieved by the year 2000 and public relations campaigns were launched all over Europe. First tangible results came as early as 1990. Salmon were found to be spawning in tributaries of the Rhine at points 150 miles upstream.

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