Imagine this, will you?
You’ve just married the love of your life, and you’re ready to start your new life together. It took months, but you were finally able to find the perfect home in a lovely neighborhood. It’s got a brand new school, a great community backing it, and — bonus! — it’s not too far from the famous Niagara Falls. It’s cheap, it’s clean, it’s just perfect to you. What a lovely place to settle down and start a new family!
Ahh, lovely. If all that wasn’t enough, the neighborhood’s name speaks out to you like whispers in a calm breeze. Love Canal, the happiest thirty-six blocks you could ever ask for.
You move in, enjoy the first couple years of you’re new life, and then it happens. You notice some odd puddles in your basement. Strange, but the other neighbors have been talking about them as well. No harm done, just something in the area you’re not quite used too yet.
Some kids complain of slight burns on their bodies after returning home from playing after the rain. What other neighbors laugh at “kids being kids” and “rug burns” seems normal to you. You’re not a parent — yet — but you remember the fond memories of your brothers playing soccer in the summertime. Things are getting worse all around you, but not much is noticed immediately.
Rome wasn’t built in a day, and the residents of Love Canal didn’t realize what was going on until it was a bit too late.
You get pregnant. An accident, sure, but you’re happier than you’ve ever been in your entire life. You prepare for the baby and before you know it, time flies by. You give birth to a baby girl — but something is terribly wrong. She’s born deaf, with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and slight retardation.
And then it hits you. The cheap land, the odd puddles in the basements, the kids coming home with burns on their skin, the birth defects. Love Canal hasn’t been so loving to you after all.
There is No Love Left at the Love Canal
The Love Canal started as a brilliant idea from the mind of William T. Love, an ambitious entrepreneur with the idea of connecting the Niagara River to the Great Lake Ontario in the early 1890’s. He believed he could become an American business legend by supplying the area’s growing industrial society with the newfangled technology behind hydroelectricity by usage of his canal.
However, all things fell short for Mr. Love — much like it did for the citizens who would later live there — as Nikola Tesla’s introduction of AC electricity (alternating current) swept the area in surges during the War of Currents. The Panic of 1893 caused investors of the Love Canal to drop out of the project like flies, leaving William Love without sponsorship and cash-flow. If this wasn’t enough, Congress almost immediately passed a law preventing water to be removed from the Niagara River in an attempt to preserve the Falls.
But after all of this, William Love hadn’t lost all hope. He quickly changed his plan to revolve around a massive shipping lane that would bypass the Niagara Falls and reach Lake Ontario. He envisioned a Utopian urban city he referenced as “Model City”, and he prepared an outline for a community full of parks and homes along the shores of Lake Ontario.
But Poor Mr. Love was ignored. His plan for Model City was never funded. He worked with shady characters — most of them assumed to be immigrants as canal digging was incredibly exhausting, dirty, and dangerous at the time. Within only one mile, about 50 feet (1.6 km) wide and 40 feet (10 – 40 feet) deep, was dug before his funds were entirely depleted.
Mr. Love gave one final attempt at making the canal worthwhile by constructing a few streets around his canal. He only managed to throw himself further into debt and, subsequently, forcing him into bankruptcy. He was forced to abandon his dreams revolving around the Love Canal and his Utopian Model City. After being abandoned, the canal slowly but gradually began filling with water. Children from other neighborhoods would swim in it during the summer and skate on it during the winter. The Canal became a local meeting point until the early 1920s — thirty years after its original creation — when it turned into a dump site for the City of Niagara Falls.
Eventually, it was bought out by Hooker Electrochemical Company (later known as the Hooker Chemical Co.), which was desperately searching for a zone to dump their large quantity of chemical wastes coming from their products. Elon Hooker, owner and CEO of the Hooker Electrochemical Company, was granted permission to dump his wastes in the Love Canal by the Niagara Power and Development Company in 1942. He put thousands of dollars into draining the area and lining it with thick clay. Afterwards, it was official. He began placing 55 gallon (US) metal and fibre barrels filled with waste into the vicinity of the harebrained idea belonging to William T. Love. In 1948, the City of Niagara Falls sold the Love Canal to Mr. Elon Hooker.
However, Hooker filled his purchase quickly. By 1953 the dump site was closed, with 21,000 tons of caustics, alkaline, fatty acids, chlorinated hydrocarbons and synthetic resins — along with several other chemicals — inside. Hooker buried his wastes with twenty-five feet of sand and soil. Vegetation began to grow atop the dump site almost immediately afterwards.
Around this time, Niagara Falls suddenly entered an economic boom, causing the population to skyrocket drastically. Within a couple years, the population surpassed 85,000. The Niagara Falls City School District, overwhelmed by the amount of children being born, needed land to build new schools as soon as possible. They attempted to purchase the property from Hooker Chemical Company, knowing it had been used to bury toxic waste.
The corporation refused to sell, citing safety concerns and possible death. They didn’t know exactly what their waste could do to living beings. However, desperate and overcrowded with kids, the school district persisted. Hooker continued to refuse until the property was threatened to be expropriated. He then agreed to sell on the condition that the board pay a whopping $1 USD for the property.
The agreements were made, and the deed was signed over on April 28th, 1953. Hooker included a seventeen line caveat, or warning, explaining the dangers of living — let alone building — on the site. Hooker believed all legal obligations would be null afterwards, and the company would be free from any charges. He repeatedly stated that the area should be sealed off “so as to prevent the possibility of persons or animals coming in contact with the dumped materials.”
Despite multiple warnings, the board began construction of the 99th Street School. In January 1954, the architects wrote to the education committee expressing concern after excavating two dump sites filled to the brim with 55 gallon drums containing multiple chemical wastes. The head architect noted that it was be “poor policy” to build in the area, as it was not known what wastes were actually present at the time. The school board refused to move the property until told the concrete foundations would be damaged if they remained. They were forced to relocate the Kindergarten playground afterwards after learning of a chemical dump right underneath it as well.
Their compromise? Move the site a mere eighty feet further north. In one year the school was completed, and in 1955, 400 children began attending the school. That very year, a twenty-five foot area crumbled, exposing toxic chemicals and drums that filled with water during storms. Children enjoyed playing in the puddles formed by them.
Did this stop anything? Not at all. Less than eight months later, the school board opened the 93rd Street School only six blocks away.
In 1957, the city constructed sewers to connect to their new idea for the area: family residence. The school board, not wanting to pay taxes and upkeep on the surrounding land, sold off the rest of the land to private developers and the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, who planned several housing projects in the area. While building, construction workers broke through the clay seal and hit the original canal walls. The local government removed the clay to use it as “filling dirt” nearby the 93rd Street School. They ended up punching holes in the sturdy clay walls to build water lines and an expressway. This all caused a new problem: all toxic waste had access to rain water, and cracks formed throughout the remaining areas of the seal. The buried chemicals were given an opportunity to seep from the canal and into the water supply.
The land where homes started sprouting up was never part of the agreement between the school board and Hooker. Since the school sold off the remaining land, the private developers knew nothing of the scenario until construction began. None of the residents moving in knew of the history of the canal, and they all believed they were living in a quiet, nice neighborhood.
In 1962, the worse of it all started. Chemicals and toxins started overflowing into everything they could. People began reporting puddles of oil and strange colored liquids in their yards and basements.
In 1976, fourteen years after it should have been obvious to everyone, two reporters for the Niagara Falls Gazette tested the pumps near Love Canal and found the chemicals. It took more than a year, as the two reporters — David Pollak and David Russell — kept quiet, for reporter Michael Brown to investigate potential health effects in the area. How did he do this? With no funds and a limited knowledge on the subject, he conducted a door-to-door survey in 1978. He discovered birth defects and many abnormalities in the residents of the area, including enlarged body parts. The New York Health Department, possibly embarrassed that they hadn’t noticed this two decades earlier, caught on and filed reports on miscarriages across the area.
Michael Brown quickly advised the local residents to create a protest group, which was led by Karen Schroeder, a mother whose recently born daughter had about a dozen birth defects. The area was declared an emergency in August of that same year. Brown became dedicated, and he wrote over a hundred articles on the Love Canal Crisis. Given the public’s attention and extra funding, he was able to test the groundwater in the area. He discovered highly toxic and cancer inducing chemicals in the water. He discovered that the dump underneath the Love Canal was three times bigger than originally thought.
The high rates of illnesses, miscarriages, and mental retardation were noticed for the first time since the residents moved in decades before. Basements were filled with thick, black substances. Vegetation wouldn’t grow. City officials were demanded to look into the matter by the state, but nothing was done. Niagara Falls mayor Michael O’Laughlin responded with “nothing is wrong in Love Canal.”
And according to Michael O’Laughlin, “nothing is wrong in Love Canal.”
Immediate blame was cast upon Hooker Chemical Company, at this point owned by Occidental Petroleum, and residents formed protests. The government ignored their pleas. They argued back that since the residents could not prove where exactly the chemicals had come from — as the chemical company had sold it to the school board who had sold it to the city who had sold it to private developers who had sold it to them, the residents — no liability could be held. Throughout this painful legal battle, residents were unable to sell their properties and move away, leaving them trapped in the middle of a chemical wasteland of cancer and disease.
In the late 1970s, Eckhardt C. Beck, the EPA Administrator in “Region 2” from 1977 – 1979, visited Love Canal after hearing all the complaints. He left shaking his head. He would eventually release the following statement on his visit to the Love Canal:
I visited the canal area at that time. Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards. Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals. Puddles of noxious substances were pointed out to me by the residents. Some of these puddles were in their yards, some were in their basements, others yet were on the school grounds. Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.
Around the same time, the New York Health Commissioner — Robery Whalen — visited the canal. He constituted it as a direct emergency, claiming it as a “public nuisance and threat to health.” He warned the residents to stay out of their basements and avoid food grown in their gardens. This spread community-wide panic, as people had been consuming produce from their gardens for years. Whalen urged that all pregnant women and children under the age of two leave the area.
The 99th Street School was closed and demolished, as it was far too close to the worse part of the waste. However, the school board refused to accept liability. It took two more years for the 93rd Street School to be closed. Why was it closed? Concerns about “seeping toxic waste.” Something that had been happening right before their eyes for years.
By 1978, after extreme lack of public interest evolved into environmental concern, Love Canal became a national media event with thousands of articles referring to the once quaint and quiet neighborhood as a “public health time bomb.” Went went as far to call it “the most appalling environmental tragedy in American history.” Michael Brown was credited with not only breaking open the case and showing the extreme case to the world, but establishing chemical waste as a nationwide issue as well. His book, Laying Waste, went deep into the Love Canal “disaster” and many other catastrophes nationwide.
On August 7th, 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced the area to be a federal health emergency. It became the first time in American history where emergency funds were used for a human caused situation rather than a natural disaster.
Then the United States Environmental Protection Agency (the EPA) jumped in. In 1979, 89 years after Mr. William T. Love had the idea to construct the canal, they recorded a “disturbingly high rate of miscarriages in the area.” They estimated that two out of every four children in a single Love Canal family had a birth defect. In that case, one boy was born with an eye defect, and one girl — as I mentioned before — was born deaf with a cleft palate, an extra row of teeth, and slight retardation. That same year, the EPA released thousands of statistics revolving around the now international case study. 33% of residents in the area had undergone complete chromosomal damage compared to the average of 1%. They listed thousands of dangers lurking in the groundwater and atmosphere of the Love Canal. They tested animals, and from studies learned that exposed animals lived half their average lifespans — from 48.8 days to 23.6 – 29.2.
Eventually, the government was forced to relocate over 800 families and reimburse them for their homes. Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act which set all blame on Occidental — the company who had bought Hooker’s company. In 1994, Federal Judge John Curtin ruled that Hooker had been negligent, but not reckless, in handling the waste and the sale of land to the Niagara Falls School Board. Occidental Petroleum was sued by the EPA and in 1995, over one hundred years after the creation of Love Canal and sixty-something years after the first 55 gallon drum was set on its soil, they agreed to pay $129 million in restitution. Soon after, they were forced to pay more after residents started pouring in their own individual lawsuits.
Homes in the residential area on both the east and west side of the canal were demolished. Some older residents, whose houses stand alone in the demolished neighborhood, chose to stay. They were promised that they were in the “safe area” of the Love Canal. It has since been estimated that fewer than 90 of the original 900 families chose to remain in the area.
On June 4th, 1980, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency was founded to restore the area. They built and sold homes much farther away from the original dumping ground. The most toxic area, which was recorded to be 16 acres in width, was reburied with a thick plastic liner, along with clay walls and dirt. A barbed wire fence almost reaching the height of 8 feet was installed around it.
Now, the question can be asked: who’s fault was the disaster at Love Canal?
Was it William T. Love, the ambitious entrepreneur with a dream to create the perfect society by connecting Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario? The man who started the entire project and left it to rot after finally giving up on his hopes and dreams?
Was it the City of Niagara Falls for turning the canal turned lake into a dump for their own personal gains and selling the land off to a danger to the environment?
Or was it Elon Hooker, the owner of the chemical company that bought the land to dump his dangerous chemicals — even though he respected the law and did everything asked to do in order to keep the area safe (by constructing the thick clay walls and burying it under twenty five feet of soil?
Perhaps it was the Niagara Power and Development Company for allowing him to dump his waste there to begin with.
Could it be the School Board for buying the land and using it despite the several warnings given to them by Elon Hooker and his company? For only relocating the school about eighty feet? For selling the land off to the private developers?
The architects of the first school for continuing the projects even though they advised against it after discovering the toxic waste?
The private developers for smashing the clay lining and introducing it to residents?
The residents themselves — for ignoring the signs and deadly attributes caused by the pools of death right below them and continuing to live there without reporting anything strange?
David Pollak and David Russell — the reporters who discovered the problems before Michael Brown — who kept quiet instead of going to the public about it?
The government for ignoring everything until the last possible moment?
I make my argument against the public — not just the residents — itself. The people who showed no interest, like most things, until the media finally blew it up. The people who showed no interest whatsoever in the environmental hazard. The people, like Michael O’Laughlin who — ironically, due to his name — merely laughed it off, further causing ignorance towards the subject.
But that’s up to the history books. Love Canal can be considered one — if not THE — biggest environmental hazard to ever happen within the states.
What started off as a huge dream from a nobody wishing to become an example of the American dream who ended up having to abandon his hopes after falling into debt ended up turning into one of the worst disasters in environmental history.
And now, marked off with 7-foot-10-inch barbed wire fences and thousands of tons of dirt, it remains a deadly reminder of how ignorant people can be. It is obvious to see that there is no love at the Love Canal anymore.
“EPA.” The Love Canal Tragedy. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2015.
“Love Canal :: Start of a Movement.” Love Canal :: Start of a Movement. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
“Love Canal – A Brief History | SUNY Geneseo.” Love Canal – A Brief History | SUNY Geneseo. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
“University at Buffalo Libraries.” Background Information. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
“#638 Occidental to Pay $129 Million in Love Canal Settlement.” #638 Occidental to Pay $129 Million in Love Canal Settlement. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
“Love Canal – Public Health Time Bomb.” Love Canal – Public Health Time Bomb. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2015.
Brown, Michael Harold. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. New York, NY: Pantheon Book, 1980. Print.