Love Canal

From Academic Kids

Love Canal is a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. It officially covers 36 square blocks in the far southeastern corner of the city, along what is now known as 99th Street. Two bodies of water define the northern and southern boundaries of the neighborhood: Bergholtz Creek to the north and the Niagara River one-quarter mile (400 m) to the south.


Early history

The name Love Canal came from the last name of William T. Love, who in the early 1890s envisioned a canal connecting Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. He believed it would serve the area's burgeoning industries with much needed hydroelectricity. After 1892 Love's plan changed to incorporate a shipping lane that would bypass Niagara Falls. Due to economic depression, Love's plan failed. Only one mile (1.6 km) of the canal, stretching northward from the Niagara River, was ever dug.

Use as toxic waste disposal site

In 1920, Love's land was sold in public auction to the City of Niagara Falls, which began using the undeveloped area as a chemical waste disposal site. The city disposed of the waste from its thriving petrochemical industry. Later, the United States Army began using the site as well, burying waste from its experiments in chemical warfare.

In 1942, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, (a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum) expanded use of the site, and by 1947, acquired the land for its own private use. In the subsequent five year period, the company buried 19,000 cubic yards (14,000 m³) of toxic waste in the area. Once the site had been filled to capacity in 1952, Hooker closed the site to further disposal and back-filled the canal.

At the time of the closure, the Baby Boom was at its height, and Niagara Falls was expanding rapidly. The local school board was desperate for land, and attempted to purchase a portion of the inexpensive property from Hooker Chemical. The board wanted to build a new elementary school in an area of the property that had not yet been used to bury toxic waste. The corporation refused to sell, but the school board pressed on, threatening expropriation. Eventually, Hooker Chemical capitulated, and sold on the condition that the board buy the entire property for a dollar. In the agreement, Hooker included a seventeen line caveat that explained the dangers of building on the site.

Shortly thereafter, the board began construction on the 99th Street School in its originally intended location. The building site was forced to relocate when contractors discovered two pits filled with chemicals. The new location was directly on top of the former chemical landfill. During construction, a clay seal which Hooker had put in to stop the chemicals seeping out was broken through, despite the breaking of several drill bits in the process.

In 1957, the City of Niagara Falls constructed sewers for a mixture of low-income and single family residences to be built on lands adjacent to the landfill site. New owners were not warned of the dangers when they were sold the land.

Residents began making repeated complaints of strange odors and "substances" that surfaced in their yards. City officials were brought to investigate the area, but did not act to solve the problem.

Health problems, activism, and site cleanup

Beginning in 1978, Lois Gibbs, the president of the Love Canal Homeowners' Association, led an effort to investigate community concerns about the health of its residents. The neighborhood had an extremely high rate of cancer, and an alarming number of birth defects. Children at the 99th Street School were constantly ill. With further investigation, Gibbs discovered the chemical danger of the adjacent canal. This began her organization's three year fight to prove that the toxins buried by Hooker Chemical were responsible for the health problems of local residents.

Throughout the ordeal, the homeowners were opposed not only by Occidental Petroleum, but also government of all levels. These opponents argued the area's endemic health problems were unrelated to the toxic chemicals buried in the canal. They believed the chemicals had been successfully contained within the former landfill. Since the residents could not prove the chemicals on their property had come from Hooker's disposal site, they could not prove liability. Homeowners continued to be ill throughout the legal battle, unable to sell their property and move away.

The 99th Street School, on the other hand, was located within the former boundary of the Hooker Chemical landfill site. While it was successfully closed and demolished, neither the school board nor the chemical company were willing to accept liability. This complicated matters for the homeowners' association, which was now battling with two organizations spending vast amounts of money to disprove negligence.

Initially the organization had been frustrated by the lack of a public entity that could advise and defend them. These mostly middle-class families did not have the resources necessary to protect themselves. By 1978, Love Canal became a national media event with articles referring to the neighborhood as a "a public health time bomb." On August 7, 1978, United States President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, but this was not enough to secure funds to move residents out of the area.

It was not until scientific investigations were undertaken that it could be proven the chemicals were responsible for the ill health of residents. Geologists were recruited to prove that underground swales were responsible for carrying the chemicals to the surrounding residential areas. Once there, they explained, chemicals leached into basements and evaporated into household air. On May 17, 1980, the EPA announced the result of blood tests that showed chromosome damage in Love Canal residents. Residents were told that this meant they were at increased risk of cancer, reproductive problems and genetic damage. Two days later, residents became so frustrated that they held two Environmental Protection Agency officials hostage for two hours.

In response, the White House agreed to evacuate all Love Canal families temporarily until permanent relocation funds could be secured. Eventually, the government relocated more than 800 families and reimbursed them for their homes. Occidental spent more than $200 million to clean up the site, and Congress passed the Superfund law holding polluters accountable.


Today, the residential areas on the east and west sides of the canal have been demolished. On the west side, all that is left is an eerie, flat plain, crossed with abandoned residential streets. Some older residents on the east side chose to stay. Their houses stand alone in the middle of the demolished neighborhood.

Some new development has begun, though the containment area is still enforced. A home for the elderly, a community center and a playground have been built against the thin, chain-link fence that separates the toxic area from the safe one.


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