James Goodman, Democrat & Chronicle. Professor Richard Newman chronicles the history of health & environmental activism of Lois Gibbs during her time in Love Canal. This is the foundation of the movement behind the Center for Health, Environment, & Justice.

Remediation work being done near abandoned houses in the Love Canal neighborhood in the late 1970s. (Photo: NY Department of Health Love Canal collection at SUNY Buffalo)

Remediation work being done near abandoned houses in the Love Canal neighborhood in the late 1970s. (Photo: NY Department of Health Love Canal collection at SUNY Buffalo)

A chain-link fence around 70 acres of land in the southern part of Niagara Falls is the most readily apparent sign that this was ground zero for the Love Canal environmental disaster.

Underneath are about 22,000 tons of hazardous chemical waste, dumped there — much of it in 55-gallon drums — between 1942 and 1953 by the nearby Hooker Chemical Co.

Rochester Institute of Technology history professor Richard Newman details this disaster — and the citizen movement it spawned — in his new book, Love Canal:  A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present, published by Oxford University Press.

The dangers of the dump came to a head in August 1978, when New York state Health Commissioner Robert Whalen declared Love Canal “a great and imminent peril to health,” followed by President Jimmy Carter issuing a declaration of national emergency.

Testing by the Health Department revealed the presence of 82 chemicals — including such carcinogens as TCE (trichloroethylene) and benzene — in locations beyond the dump, in air samples, basements and monitoring wells.

But that was not the last word.

Love Canal residents in the area continued to voice their concerns  — leading to an evacuation of about 1,000 families and the enactment of such laws as the 1980 Superfund legislation for cleanup of hazardous sites and its 1986 amendment providing the public with the right to know what chemicals are being dumped.

“This is the first time that a human-made disaster made national and international headlines and the first time a citizen’s movement impacted national environmental policy,” Newman said in a recent interview.

Most visible among the homegrown activists was Lois Gibbs, who moved to Love Canal in 1974 with her family. She soon found that her young son, Michael, began suffering seizures and immune system problems.

Her daughter, Melissa, who was born in 1975, suffered problems with her platelets, which cause the blood to clot. Bruises began appearing on her body.

“I had thousands of people call after Love Canal. They had questions like, ‘How did you do that?’” Gibbs said in a recent interview.

Newman’s book also tells about what he calls the “underside of the chemical century.”

And there is a Rochester connection. Hooker Electrochemical Co., as the company was formally called, was founded by Elon Huntington Hooker, an engineer and entrepreneur. He came from a prominent Rochester family and earned his undergraduate and master’s degrees  from the University of Rochester.

Hooker Chemical, like other emerging chemical companies, gave short shrift to the dangers posed by its pollutants.

“As he aged, Elon Huntington Hooker continued to celebrate the power, not the pitfalls, of chemical innovation,” writes Newman.

Grass-roots organizing

It was a group of residents-turned-activists who, after they and their children experienced the ill effects of Love Canal, made the pollution of this dump a national issue.

In 1978, Gibbs founded the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which sounded the alarm.

The evacuations began in 1978 and reached about 1,000 by 1980, with the federal and state governments, according to Newman, putting up $27 million for families to evacuate.

Gibbs, who was among those evacuated, moved to Falls Church, Virginia, where she established the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.

Luella Kenny, who lived in one of the hot spots near Love Canal, was among the 1,322 former residents who filed a lawsuit against Occidental Petroleum Corp., which in 1968 bought Hooker Chemical, and various governmental entities in Niagara County for damages to health and property.

Kenny, who was a cancer researcher at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, said the death of her 7-year-old son, Jon, from kidney disease was linked to the exposure of chemicals and his suppressed immune system.

In the settlement of the lawsuit, the judge ruled that her son had suffered a “wrongful death,” and ordered an undisclosed award, said Kenny.

The settlement also provided $1 million for the establishment of the Love Canal Medical Fund to help pay for medical expenses related to Love Canal. Kenny was the first president and is now vice president of the fund

“Love Canal was a man-made disaster. People should realize that they are responsible for the planet,”  Kenny said.

Newman tells how state officials, in their study of Love Canal, documented increases in birth defects, miscarriages and various illnesses.

But officials were caught off balance, having to deal with so many health and environmental concerns at one time.

“Indeed, the very definition of ‘disaster’ still revolved around natural events like hurricanes, floods, tornadoes and earthquakes. But leaking chemical waste into nearby homes? This was simply not on the political radar,” writes Newman.

While other books have been written about Love Canal, Newman provides a comprehensive, start-to-finish history, with an emphasis on how the residents of Love Canal  — people who had no background in political organizing — forced the issues.

They confronted public officials, questioned the halfway measures that government proposed and showed that the pollution was not an act of God, but rather the result of inadequate controls on industry.

In June 1978, Gibbs began going door-to-door with a petition to have children removed from the elementary school built on the dump.

Roots of pollution

Newman traces the history of Love Canal, which is in a region that in the 1720s served as a trading center for the French.

With companies taking advantage of its hydropower, the Niagara Frontier — most noted for Niagara Falls — became fertile ground for industrial development.

In 1894, entrepreneur William Love broke ground for what he envisioned as a power canal — diverting water for industrial development.

But within three years, Love ran out of money and left a big hole — about a mile long — in the ground.

That hole became the main dump for Hooker Chemical.

Elon Hooker was the patriarch of the company.

“He helped launch the American Chemical Century,” writes Newman. “Hooker backed an economic sector ready to take off and take over.”

A friend of President Theodore Roosevelt, Hooker aligned himself with the Progressive Party, and when Roosevelt made a bid for re-election in 1912, Hooker served as the party’s national treasurer.

Hooker Chemical took hold in the 1940s, producing not only bleaching powder and caustic soda but also explosives, rubber materials, disinfectants and defoliants used during World War II.

This was long before the full effects of hazardous chemicals were understood.

By 1953, the dump — Love Canal — was full.

Making a dangerous situation all the more so, the Niagara Falls School Board purchased Love Canal from Hooker Chemical that April for $1.

“Not since the Dutch gained Manhattan for a few guilders would a New York land transaction inspire so much subsequent scrutiny,” writes Newman.

Even though Hooker’s executive vice president told of the potentially hazardous “nature of the property,” the transfer of ownership went through and the construction of a new school ran into problems.

The foundation sank but, undeterred, the building was moved a short distance away.

Agents of change

Newman describes himself as an historian of American reform movements.

He is author, co-author or editor of six books on abolitionists and environmental history.

Newman returned to RIT for this school year after spending two years as director of The Library Co. of Philadelphia, established by Ben Franklin in 1731.

His first book, The Transformation of American Abolitionism: Fighting Slavery in the Early Republic, found that religion “was a cornerstone of abolitionism throughout the Revolutionary and early national periods.”

In Freedom’s Prophet: Bishop Richard Allen, the AME Church, and the Black Founding Fathers, Newman focused on a former slave who “helped define the meaning of liberation theology, the notion that God sided with oppressed people.”

Newman, 49, who grew up in Buffalo and earned his bachelor’s and doctorate in history at the State University of New York at Buffalo, grew up seeing TV news reports about Love Canal.

“It was always a curiosity, but I never visited it until I became a professor teaching environmental history at RIT,” he said.

Newman, who joined the RIT faculty in 1998, first visited Love Canal a year later.

“My first impression of Love Canal was that it wasn’t marked and people tried to erase it from the landscape,” Newman said. “I wanted to uncover the important nature of Love Canal and the way activists changed American environmentalism.”

JGOODMAN@Gannett.com

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