Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company

During the 1940’s and 1950’s, Hooker Chemical buried approximately twenty-two thousand tons of toxic waste at its landfill in Love Canal, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. By the late 1970’s, residents of Love Canal began noticing serious health problems in the neighborhood, including large numbers of miscarriages and birth disorders. In 1983, Hooker Chemical’s parent company agreed to an out-of-court settlement with more than one thousand residents who had sued. The dumping scandal led to the creation of the multibillion-dollar federal Superfund program for cleaning up of toxic-waste sites around the United States.

Summary of Event

In 1892, businessman William T. Love purchased the land that separated the upper and lower parts of the Niagara River, situated near the City of Niagara Falls, to dig a canal that would connect the two river branches. What came to be called Love Canal was never completed, however, and during the 1920’s, the City of Niagara Falls purchased the property to use as a landfill. In 1942, Hooker Chemical (HC) in turn bought the sixteen-acre parcel for private use as a chemical disposal site. Between 1947 and 1952, the company buried approximately twenty-two thousand tons of hazardous waste at Love Canal. After the area was completely filled, the company backfilled the site and then encased it with four feet of clay to contain the toxic waste. [kw]Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company (Sept. 26, 1979)
Gibbs, Lois
Love Canal
Hooker Chemical
Gibbs, Lois
Love Canal
Hooker Chemical
[g]United States;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
[c]Law and the courts;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
[c]Business;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
[c]Medicine and health care;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
[c]Families and children;Sept. 26, 1979: Love Canal Residents Sue Chemical Company[01800]
Whalen, Robert P.
Carey, Hugh Leo
Carter, Jimmy

A sign warns against entering a fenced-off area of the Love
Canal neighborhood.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In 1953, HC sold the land to the Niagara Falls School District for one dollar. The property deed included a warning about the chemicals buried on the site and also released HC from any future legal responsibilities. Shortly thereafter, the school district built the Ninety-ninth Street Elementary School on the site of the former landfill and, as expected, residential homes began to be built near the school. By the 1970’s, the Love Canal neighborhood had about 1,800 single-family homes and 240 apartments for low-income residents.

Beginning during the late 1950’s, Love Canal residents frequently complained to the city about burns suffered by their children and pets, strange odors, oozing sludge, and the existence of unknown substances on their properties. In cooperation with Niagara County, the city hired Calspan Corporation to investigate the complaints. The company reported that it had found toxic chemicals in the Love Canal area and provided the city with a list of corrective procedures. In response, the city did nothing.

During the mid-1970’s, years of abnormally heavy rains caused chemicals to surface. Ominous pools of multicolored liquid appeared following storms. Burns and mysterious rashes became increasingly common, a section of the schoolyard collapsed, gardens and backyard trees died, and strange substances seeped through basement walls. The Niagara Gazette began investigating these problems in October, 1976.

In April, 1978, the Niagara Gazette published several newspaper articles about the buried toxic waste. The articles revived the residents’ fight for the chemical cleanup of their neighborhood and also focused national attention on Love Canal. On August 2, Love Canal was declared unsafe by the commissioner of the New York State Department of Health (DOH), Robert P. Whalen. Citing high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, Whalen ordered the school closed and recommended that pregnant women and infants leave Love Canal immediately. However, residents were outraged at his suggestion. They believed the area was unsafe for all residents That same year, the U.S. Environmental Environmental Protection Agency Protection Agency (EPA) completed its own investigation and determined that serious health risks indeed were endangering the community.

The community began to be more actively involved in the crisis. One community leader was Lois Gibbs, who started a petition to close the Ninety-ninth Street school. She believed her son’s health problems were directly linked to the school being located on top of the toxic landfill. While going door to door obtaining signatures, she found that many residents also were suffering from similar health problems. In July, 1978, New York governor Hugh Leo Carey granted emergency powers to the DOH to handle the growing crisis at Love Canal, allocating $500,000 for health studies on the residents of the area. On August 2, the DOH declared a medical state of emergency at Love Canal and ordered the temporary evacuation of all pregnant women and children under the age of two. The agency also closed the Ninety-ninth Street school.

On August 4, Gibbs and her neighbors organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) and began an aggressive campaign to prove that the toxic chemicals buried in Love Canal were directly linked to the unusually high number of health problems in the area. These health problems included epilepsy, asthma, cancers, urinary tract infections, miscarriages, and Birth disorders birth disorders. On August 7, U.S. president Jimmy Carter declared a federal state of emergency at Love Canal and ordered the relocation of all the families living on the first two blocks closest to the landfill. In September, the U.S. House of Representatives allocated four million dollars toward the cleanup of the site. In November, more than two hundred chemicals, including benzene and dioxin, were found buried at Love Canal.

Throughout 1979, while state and federal agencies continued testing for chemical contamination and cleaning up the area, the LCHA continued its fight to have all remaining families relocated from Love Canal. On September 26, the first residents’ lawsuits were filed, holding HC liable for the environmental disaster. By October 31, more than eight hundred suits were filed against HC, the city, the county, and the board of education. Combined, these lawsuits sought approximately $800 billion in damages. On December 20, the U.S. Department of Justice, on behalf of the EPA, also filed a $124 million suit against HC’s parent company, Occidental Chemical, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum.

Several months later, in May, 1980, the EPA announced that after extensive medical examinations of Love Canal residents, the agency found thirty-six individuals with chromosome damage. On May 19, LCHA president Gibbs and other LCHA members held two EPA employees hostage at the association’s office and demanded that President Carter do something to help the residents of Love Canal. Two days later, Carter declared another health emergency that temporarily relocated the remaining families. On October 1, Carter signed a bill that made the relocations permanent.

Three years later (October, 1983), a lawsuit filed by 1,328 former residents of Love Canal against Occidental Petroleum was settled out of court for approximately $20 million. In June, 1994, the company agreed to reimburse the state of New York a total of $98 million for Love Canal cleanup expenses, and in December, 1995, the company agreed to pay $129 million in damages to the federal government for costs associated with cleaning the site.


The Love Canal toxic-dumping scandal had far-reaching consequences not only for the residents of Love Canal but also for the country, its industry, and its government. Through hard work and perseverance, Gibbs and the homeowners’ association fought to convince local, state, and federal authorities that the toxic chemicals buried underneath their homes were causing serious health problems. They demanded relocation and corporate accountability. As a result of their efforts, the public gained a new understanding of the hidden dangers of chemical exposure and the importance of proper chemical disposal.

Most significantly, the toxic-dumping scandal led to the creation of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 that was passed on December 11, 1980. Commonly known as the Superfund Act, it oversees the cleanup of abandoned hazardous-waste sites in the United States. Love Canal was the first Superfund site. The total cost of the cleanup was approximately $400 million and took twenty-one years to complete. Gibbs, Lois
Love Canal
Hooker Chemical

Further Reading

  • Collin, Robert W. The Environmental Protection Agency: Cleaning Up America’s Act. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2006. This book documents the history of the Environmental Protection Agency and reviews some of its most notable cases, including Love Canal.
  • Fletcher, Thomas H. From Love Canal to Environmental Justice: The Politics of Hazardous Waste on the Canada-U.S. Border. Orchard Park, N.Y.: Broadview Press, 2003. Beginning with the tragedy at Love Canal, the author traces the history of environmental disasters and the government policies and procedures that have been created to handle them, both in the United States and in Canada.
  • Freudenberg, Nicholas. Not in Our Backyards! Community Action for Health and the Environment. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1984. Excellent source of information on community action in response to environmental problems. Chapters begin with case studies and then focus on a particular issue such as government regulation, public education, public protest, or legal and legislative action. References, index, and helpful lists of relevant books, manuals for environmental activists, and environmental organizations.
  • Gibbs, Lois Marie, with Murray Levine. Love Canal: The Story Continues. Stony Creek, Conn.: New Society, 1998. An autobiographical account, first published in 1982, by Gibbs about her struggles as the president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association and getting help for the residents of Love Canal.
  • Levine, Adeline Gordon. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1982. The author chronicles the events at Love Canal, focusing primarily on the community’s reactions and responses to the chemical disaster and their fight with the U.S. government for help.

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