PROVIDENCE — In 1978, Lois Gibbs took on the powers-that-be when she learned that her son’s school and Love Canal neighborhood in New York were built on a toxic waste dump. Her battle led to the evacuation of hundreds of houses, sparked a massive environmental cleanup, and inspired a made-for-TV movie and the creation of the federal Superfund program.
On Wednesday, 35 years later, Gibbs climbed the steps of the State House to congratulate Rhode Island for enacting what she called the nation’s strongest law against building schools on contaminated sites. She has taken the 2012 bill to Michigan, Massachusetts and New York to promote it as a model.
So why, she asked, would anyone want to “undo the best piece of legislation in this country? … It’s less than a year and already they are trying to tear up the law.
“Why,” she continued, “would people want to put Love Canal beneath a school?”
Gibbs, having learned of the attempt to weaken the law, traveled from Virginia to lend her experience and fame to support the year-old law prohibiting school construction where toxic vapors pose a risk. She joined the rally organized by the Environmental Justice League of Rhode Island, Clean Water Action, and the Childhood Lead Action Project.
The groups lobbied for several years for the so-called “school siting law” after losing a fight to stop Alvarez High School from being built on the former Gorham Manufacturing property in Providence. They were not satisfied with the pollution control systems installed at Alvarez.
Under the law, a school cannot be built on land where vapors from contaminants could potentially infiltrate a new building through cracks and holes. The source of the vapors must be removed or a different site chosen.
But if the law is amended as proposed in House and Senate bills, it would permit the use of engineered solutions that the activists oppose as unreliable and costly to maintain for taxpayers — dollars that could otherwise be spent on education.
The understanding of toxic vapors is “a new science,” said Jamie Rhodes, director of Clean Water Action. “There’s no need to make kids guinea pigs.”
Gibbs, who in 1981 founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Virginia, said both of her children became ill from Love Canal.
“We got sick not from the dump itself,” she said. “We got sick from vapor intrusion.”
The bills were drafted after the Rhode Island Mayoral Academies raised concerns about the law. The organization’s efforts to turn the site of the former Red Farm Studios greeting card company in Pawtucket into another Blackstone Valley Prep Charter School were halted when the law was enacted last year.