Love Canal, Niagara Falls, became infamous for being an environmental disaster of horrific dimensions. The women of Love Cove were dubbed as the ‘Hysterical Women’. They had every reason to be distraught. A rash of illnesses inundated their neighbourhood and was causing the death of their children.
Love Canal Model Community
Love Canal is on the shore of Lake Ontario. In 1890, Love Canal was the dream of an ambitious railway entrepreneur, William Love. The economic panic of 1893 saw the project abandoned and investors flee.
In 1906, the government enacted a law to protect Niagara Falls river. No one could siphon any more water from the river.
They had only completed one mile of the canal. In places it was 50 feet wide and 40 feet deep. They abandoned the town and the canal and sold the property at public auction.
The local children swam in the canal in summer and skated in the winter, until 1920. Then the canal became a dump site for the City of Niagara Falls waste, including municipal garbage. A practise that continued until 1948.
Love Canal Chemical Dump
Hooker Chemical Company was given the right to dump waste into the canal, by the Niagara Power and Development Company. They drained and lined the canal with thick clay. Hooker dumped 55-gallon drums of chemical toxic waste.
They dumped around 21,800 short tons of toxic chemical waste over a period of ten years. Waste from manufacturing dyes, perfumes, solvents, rubber, and synthetic resins. The drums were buried at a depth of twenty to twenty-five feet.
In 1950 the population of the area reached over 98,000. It was apparent the land was going to be needed for development.
The company ceased using the area as a dumping ground, in 1952. To stop leakage, they covered the canal with a clay seal. The site became a 16-acre landfill.
Company Ducked Responsibility
The local authorities threatened to confiscate the land. In 1953, the company deeded the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for one dollar.
There was a seventeen-line caveat in the contract. It released Hooker Chemical Company from all legal obligations, should there be any future lawsuits.
This made the school responsible for protecting any prospective property buyers, regarding the buried chemicals. The Hooker Chemical Company had handed the security and maintenance of hazardous waste into unqualified hands.
Love Canal School Built
The School Board began construction on the land. In 1954, the school’s architect told the board, their excavations had uncovered two sites of toxic waste drums.
They moved the school building site 80 feet to the north. They also moved the kindergarten playground, as it was on top of one of the chemical dumps.
Developing the land breached containment structures. Trapped chemicals began seeping out. In 1955, chemical filled drums were exposed, when a section of earth collapsed and a 25-foot area opened up. It then filled with rainwater. The local children delighted in playing in the toxic puddles.
The school district sold the unused land for the erection of homes. Hooker attorney Arthur Chambers warned the land was unsuitable for housing because of the buried toxic waste. His warnings went unheeded.
In 1957, the City of Niagara Falls constructed sewers in the area. The seal over the toxic waste was again breached. They built a mixture of low-income and single-family residences on the land, next to the landfill. The prospective residents of the 800 private houses and 204 low-income apartments were unaware of the history of the canal.
The local government used part of the protective clay cap for fill for the nearby 93rd Street School. Locals continued reporting puddles of oil coloured, nasty smelling liquid in their yards and basements.
Love Canal’s Shocking Discovery
For years, the residents complained about odours and odd substances in their yards and the public playgrounds. Mayor of Niagara Falls, Michael O’Loughlin, infamously stated there was “Nothing wrong in Love Canal”.
After a harsh winter storm in 1977, the level of groundwater rose. The State Departments of Health and Environmental Conservation began investigating. The basements of many houses showed unacceptable levels of toxic vapours. Vegetation in the area struggled to survive.
Reporter Michael Brown
In 1978, a reporter, Michael Brown from the Niagara Gazette, conducted an informal door-to-door survey. He found many birth defects and anomalies. There were reports of enlarged feet, heads, hands, and legs. Epilepsy, asthma, urinary tract infections, low white-cell blood count, suicides, mental instability. The effects of toxic waste contamination went on and on.
The New York State Health Department investigated and found an abnormal incidence of miscarriages. Brown found a huge dump that was leaking toxins into the Niagara Falls town water supply. Decades of dumped toxic waste were taking a toll on hundreds of residents.
Michael Brown wrote the first book on toxic waste, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America By Toxic Chemicals. It created a national firestorm.
The residents were sitting on top of a chemical burial ground. The term ‘Hysterical Women’ was born. For thirty years, the residents struggled to get their voice heard.
Mothers wheeling strollers protested in rallies. Pregnant women and children all added their voices to the protests. Activists held two Environmental Protection Authority employees hostage for five hours. It was the intention of the women to place their demands before the federal government. Several organizations joined the women in their fight for recognition.
The situation was dire. People were dying from the effects of the toxic waste. Grieving mothers were desperate for the situation to change.
They battled for two years trying to show the noxious waste from Hooker Chemical’s dumping caused the endemic illnesses. The buried chemical waste was haunting an entire community. Mothers were losing their children.
Occidental Petroleum was now owned Hooker Chemical Company. They joined members of government, arguing that buried toxic chemicals was not the cause of the area’s health endemic.
Residents could not sell their properties and move away from the affected area while investigations continued.
President Carter announced a federal health emergency for the Love Canal area, on August 7, 1978. They built trenches to transport the wastes to sewers and sealed sump pumps.
The Federal Government moved over 800 families to a new location. Women said goodbye to their contaminated homes. They reimbursed them for losing their homes. Several rings of houses at Love Canal were demolished.
In 1988, New York State Department of Health Commissioner David Axelrod said “Love Canal was a national symbol of failure to exercise concern for future generations”.
Love Canal Clean Up
The toxic waste was reburied. Authorities covered the most toxic area of the 16 acres, with a thick plastic liner, clay and dirt. They erected an 8-foot barbed wire fence around the area. In 1989, the Department of Justice published a report stating that the site was ready for use once again.
It was not until 2004 that federal officials announced the Superfund had finished the cleanup of Love Canal. It had cost $400 million. The authorities had taken 21 years to clear Love Canal of toxic waste.
In 1994, the court ordered Occidental Petroleum to pay $129 million in restitution. Hooker Chemical was found negligent in their disposal of waste, but not reckless in the land’s sale. Money did not compensate the grieving mothers.
The Love Canal was not an isolated incident, but it did become the test-mark for liability cases. There are hundreds of similar toxic chemical waste dump sites. Government decision-makers are seldom held accountable in the way which private owners are held liable.
The mothers at Love Canal still grieve the loss of their children. Nothing can bring them back and no amount of money can compensate their loss. The loneliest place on the planet is standing at a child’s grave. Grieving mothers have a voice.
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