William T Love was a visionary who, in the 1890s, hoped to build a model community powered by hydroelectricity. His scheme required the construction of a short, canal between the upper and lower Niagara River at Niagara Falls, New York State. But, in 1910, the money ran out; Love Canal was abandoned half-dug. In 1942 the site was acquired by the Hooker Chemical Company as a chemical waste dump. By the time it was sold for one dollar in 1953, Love Canal was Med with a toxic detritus of benzene, toluene, dioxins, heavy metals, hydrocarbons and worse. The site was ‘sealed’ with impermeable clay, and town planners allowed a school and some hundred houses to be built on it.
By the 1970s residents were reporting an exceptional incidence of miscarriages, birth defects and general health problems, and were linking them to the stinking puddles, bubbling chemical ooze and corroding oil drums popping up in their gardens and backyards. The worst affected homes were evacuated, but health problems multiplied even where state officials claimed there was no contamination. During 1979-1980 only four out of 22 births were normal. Defects included three ears, a double row of teeth and severe mental retardation. Children playing outdoors came home with bums on exposed skin.
Independent scientific studies were dismissed as ‘useless housewife data’ – until one of the housewives organized a mass street protest. By forcing the story of Love Canal onto the political agenda, Lois Gibbs exposed the catalogue of contempt shown by local and state authorities for residents’ welfare. The Senate and even the President called for immediate action and proper investigation. But as soon as the fuss died down, Love Canal fell off the agenda again. The state continued to pursue its policy of playing for time and avoiding accountability. It’s not over yet – that ‘housewife’ is slowly and surely winning her battle.
When: 1942 onwards
Where: Love Canal, City of Niagara Fails, New York State, USA
Toll: Nobody can guess the true extent of the disaster. Tens of thousands of people are still ingesting toxic poisons from Love Canal (from the groundwater if nothing else), despite the Federal Emergency declared in 1978, the $356 million recovery costs paid by the Occidental Chemical Corporation (Hooker’s successor), or the more than $100 million paid out by the authorities.
You should know: Around 59 kg (130 lb) of dioxin were buried there: 100 g (4 oz) can kill a million people. Some of the birth defects are permanent genetic mutations. No amount of money can change that. But Lois Gibbs, the campaigning housewife, has already changed the future by founding the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ) which in 20 years has helped 10,000 American and international community-based groups discover how to organize and flex their grassroots power.