Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Love Canal became a national symbol after a forgotten toxic-waste dump contaminated nearby homes and forced state and federal officials to evacuate residents.

Summary of Event

In 1894, William T. Love began a canal to link the Niagara River and Lake Ontario. He intended to generate electricity for a planned community on the shores of Lake Ontario. Well before the project’s completion, however, the depression of the mid-1890’s scared off investors, and the invention of alternating current made locating homes and industry near water power unnecessary. The project was abandoned. Love Canal incident Toxic waste;Love Canal Waste;toxic Ecological disasters [kw]Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal (Aug. 7, 1978) [kw]Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal, Toxic (Aug. 7, 1978) [kw]Discovered at Love Canal, Toxic Waste Is (Aug. 7, 1978) [kw]Love Canal, Toxic Waste Is Discovered at (Aug. 7, 1978) Love Canal incident Toxic waste;Love Canal Waste;toxic Ecological disasters [g]North America;Aug. 7, 1978: Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal[03330] [g]United States;Aug. 7, 1978: Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal[03330] [c]Health and medicine;Aug. 7, 1978: Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal[03330] [c]Environmental issues;Aug. 7, 1978: Toxic Waste Is Discovered at Love Canal[03330] Gibbs, Lois Whalen, Robert P. Carey, Hugh Leo Carter, Jimmy [p]Carter, Jimmy;Love Canal

In 1942, the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation received permission from the city of Niagara Falls to dispose of chemical and other wastes in the canal. Cheap, plentiful water and hydroelectric power had made Niagara Falls a chemical manufacturing center, and dumping was common—more than two hundred toxic disposal sites have been found within a fifty-mile radius of Love Canal. Situated in a sparsely populated area and with impermeable clay walls, the three-thousand-foot-long, sixty-foot-wide canal appeared to be an excellent location for a new dump. By 1953, Hooker had buried 21,800 tons of toxic chemicals at the fifteen-acre site. Tests would eventually identify more than two hundred different compounds at the site, including fourteen that can affect the brain and central nervous system, and twelve carcinogens.

Residents of Love Canal in New York attend a neighborhood protest.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

In the early 1950’s, housing development began in the area. In 1953, after extended discussion, Hooker sold the canal and seventy feet on either side to the Niagara School Board for one dollar. The deed acknowledged the buried chemicals, although not their type or toxicity, and included a disclaimer protecting the firm from future liability. The canal pit was sealed with a clay cap designed to prevent rainwater from disturbing the chemicals. Grass was planted, and the area was soon a large field.

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School construction began in January, 1954. Excavations for the foundation breached the clay cap and walls. After workers encountered chemically contaminated soil, nauseating odors, and drums filled with chemical waste, the foundation was moved north eighty-five feet. In 1955, four hundred children attended the new elementary school and played on the ball fields atop the canal. The city built sewer lines through the canal’s clay walls and cover. Houses were built. Soil from the field was removed for filler at other locations. Soon all the land surrounding the canal bed had been developed, and roads, sewers, and utility lines had been built through it. Any ability the site might have had to exclude rainwater and prevent chemicals from leaching into groundwater or rising to the surface had been destroyed.

In 1958, people began complaining of nauseating odors, oozing sludge, and children and animals suffering burns while playing in the field. In the mid-1970’s, years of abnormally heavy rains caused chemicals to surface in larger amounts. 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. The paper chronicled the canal’s history, the nature and growing frequency of resident complaints, and the city’s lack of action. In April, 1977, an official investigation was finally begun. Toxic chemicals were found in storm sewers and basements. Leaking chemical drums lay exposed or thinly buried in the field. Air tests detected chemical levels in some homes that were 250 to 5,000 times greater than allowable safety levels.

Media coverage of these developments alarmed area residents. Most were shocked and frightened to learn that their homes and local school sat next to forty-three million pounds of toxic chemicals. Several who had complained to the city or suspected that family illnesses were linked to the canal began informing their neighbors of the danger and inquiring about health problems. What they found was a terrifying pattern of rashes, burns, mysterious illnesses, cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. Fearing for their health, unable to sell their homes because of the now-publicized danger, and feeling betrayed by government officials who had neither warned them nor responded to their complaints, Love Canal residents turned to one another and began to organize.

The largest and most effective citizen group was the Love Canal Homeowners Association Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA). Its objectives were to get city, state, and federal authorities to recognize the problem, clean up the chemicals, and evacuate residents. Although not completely successful, the LCHA and other groups played crucial roles in publicizing the problem, maintaining media attention, and applying political pressure on state and federal officials.

The group’s efforts appeared to pay off on August 2, 1978, when New York State’s health commissioner, Dr. Robert P. Whalen, declared Love Canal unsafe. Citing high rates of miscarriages and birth defects, Whalen ordered the school closed and recommended that pregnant women and infants leave Love Canal immediately. Rather than being pleased, however, residents were outraged. They believed the area was unsafe for all residents. The LCHA called for an immediate, widespread evacuation to be financed by those who caused the problem. A group of 150 home owners announced that they would not pay their mortgages or property taxes.

During the next week, confusion reigned as rumors circulated concerning possible relocation plans. After fifteen families with infants or expectant mothers were housed in hotels at state expense, residents worried that only a few households would receive assistance. Others became alarmed after learning that removing the bulk of the chemicals was impossible and that new containing walls and drainage systems would be installed instead. They feared that any relocation would be temporary and that residents would be returned to Love Canal whenever the state and city, which many no longer trusted, declared it was safe.

On August 8, 1978, President Jimmy Carter approved emergency assistance for Love Canal. New York’s governor, Hugh Leo Carey, announced that funds would be used to purchase homes nearest to the canal. Two hundred thirty-eight households were evacuated under this plan, and by December the homes had been demolished and cleanup operations were in full swing.

Although a relief for many families, the evacuation included only those houses that were to be demolished as part of the cleanup operation. Hundreds of families living beyond the first ring of homes surrounding the canal also believed themselves in danger and were bitter that they were excluded.

Nearly two years later, on May 17, 1980, researchers announced that blood tests of residents still living in the area showed chromosome damage in eleven of thirty-six samples. The state had also recently recommended that infants and pregnant women leave homes that had previously been certified as safe. Residents were enraged. On May 19, Environmental Protection Agency Environmental Protection Agency;Love Canal (EPA) officials meeting with the LCHA were detained more than five hours by three hundred angry home owners who demanded immediate evacuation. Two days later, President Carter declared a second emergency at Love Canal. Nearly eight hundred families were evacuated, and their homes were purchased by the government. Two hundred of these homes were demolished, but the rest remained to be resold once the area was declared safe.

In December, 1984, a new clay cap was installed over the canal. Three months later, 1,328 former and current Love Canal residents received shares of the $20 million settlement of their suit against Occidental Petroleum, Occidental Petroleum Hooker’s corporate parent. In May, 1990, the EPA announced that hundreds of homes evacuated during the second emergency were now safe. Many were sold, and families began returning to Love Canal.

Significance

The evacuation of more than eight hundred families made Love Canal synonymous with hazardous-waste problems in the United States. The crisis exposed the dangers posed by toxic chemicals and produced widespread concern over the thousands of toxic dumps in the United States.

The role played by the LCHA demonstrated the importance of citizen groups. Many state and national organizations were formed to educate Americans about hazardous waste, press for more effective regulation, and help communities organize to address their own problems. There was also an explosion of ad hoc groups organized to deal with issues including the closing of existing toxic dumps, preventing the creation of new dumps, and changing state policy for hazardous-waste transportation and disposal.

Events at Love Canal hastened passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980. Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (1980) Commonly known as Superfund, Superfund (1980) this legislation established a multibillion-dollar fund to clean up the nation’s worst toxic disasters. The Environmental Protection Agency assigned approximately twelve hundred of the more than thirty thousand abandoned and potentially contaminated waste sites in the United States to Superfund’s National Priority List.

Although the effectiveness of Superfund has been disputed and some believed that the second Love Canal evacuation was unnecessarily broad, there was wide agreement that addressing hazardous-waste issues was critically important. Love Canal also contributed, along with the 1984 chemical plant explosion in Bhopal, India, to the community right-to-know provision of the 1986 Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act. Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (1986) Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (1986) Although the relative responsibility of Hooker, the school board, and state and federal authorities remained in dispute, it was clear that those who moved to Love Canal were unaware of its history and did not have the opportunity to consider the risk for their families. The new legislation gave citizens the right to know what chemicals were produced, stored, or buried in their neighborhoods.

The legal impacts of the Love Canal incident were unclear. State and federal lawsuits against Hooker and Occidental remained unresolved. Federal officials argued that the companies were liable for all cleanup and relocation costs because Hooker did not act responsibly given its knowledge of the potential danger. Occidental claimed that company liability ended with the disclaimer in Hooker’s transaction with the school board. Occidental also contended that city and state actions destroyed the integrity of the site despite warnings by Hooker against such actions. Although the legal precedent set by Love Canal was murky, the right of individuals to be removed from health-threatening environmental disasters caused by the actions or negligence of others was clear.

Finally, for the individual residents of Love Canal, the discovery of toxic chemicals and the subsequent evacuations were traumatic experiences that did not necessarily end with the financial settlement. Families who blamed the canal, corporate irresponsibility, or governmental negligence for cancers, miscarriages, or birth defects did not see their bitterness or health problems automatically disappear after they left Love Canal. Many living outside the evacuation areas still resented being left behind. Even those who had suffered no ill effects could not be sure that they had escaped unscathed. Because chemicals did not begin coming to the surface in great quantities until the 1970’s, it was possible that more cancers associated with exposure could appear over time. Love Canal incident Toxic waste;Love Canal Waste;toxic Ecological disasters

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brown, Michael Harold. Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals. Rev. ed. New York: Pocket Books, 1981. Brown, an investigative reporter who covered Love Canal, uses a study of the case to open a broader discussion of the extensive production, haphazard disposal, inadequate regulation, and lethal impact of toxic chemicals. Contains an index but no references or bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. 1962. Reprint. Boston: Mariner Books, 2002. This classic text alerted Americans to the threats posed by the increasing and often indiscriminate use of pesticides. Carson’s documentation of contaminated lakes and rivers and the effects of chemical pesticides on humans and nature is often credited for igniting popular concern for environmental protection. References and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fletcher, Thomas H. From Love Canal to Environmental Justice: The Politics of Hazardous Waste on the Canada-U.S. Border. New York: Broadview Press, 2003. An in-depth look at environmental movements on both sides of the New York-Ontario border. Useful for academics and activists.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">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 particular issues, 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.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gibbs, Lois Marie, with Murray Levine. Love Canal: My Story. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1982. This book, written in the first person, provides a highly accessible, informative, and personal account of the events at Love Canal. Gibbs candidly discusses the community’s anxiety, confusion, and anger, the complex political battles, and her surprising role as community leader. Offers no reference features.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hays, Samuel P. Beauty, Health, and Permanence: Environmental Politics in the United States, 1955-1985. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Provides a comprehensive and balanced history of the political and economic struggle between what Hays sees as two groups: those whose priority is a pristine environment and those whose priority is economic production. This excellent source contains comprehensive references and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levine, Adeline Gordon. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982. Offers an in-depth study that would be valuable for anyone concerned with Love Canal or environmental politics. Levine, a sociologist, offers special insights into the actions of local citizens and policy makers. Extensive references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mokhiber, Russell, and Leonard Shen. “Love Canal.” In Who’s Poisoning America: Corporate Polluters and Their Victims in the Chemical Age, edited by Ralph Nader, Ronald Brownstein, and John Richard. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1981. This insightful chapter is one of seven case studies of chemical pollution that focus on problem recognition, corporate irresponsibility, and citizen action. Nader’s concluding chapter offers recommendations for individuals and governments to ensure corporate accountability. Strident but informative. References and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenbaum, Walter A. Environmental Politics and Policy. 6th ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2004. This detailed, wide-ranging, and well-written examination of U.S. environmental policy is valuable for both specialists and laypeople. Political scientist Rosenbaum is less historical than Hays but provides more sophisticated political and policy analysis. Each chapter concludes with a list of suggested readings. Many helpful tables and figures, extensive references, and index.

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