Lois Gibbs was raising her family in Love Canal, near Niagara Falls in upstate New York, in 1978 when she discovered that her home and those of her neighbors were sitting next to 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals.
That shocking discovery spurred Lois to lead her community in a three-year struggle to protect their families from the hazardous waste buried in their backyards. By trial and error, Lois and her neighbors developed the strategies and methods to educate and organize the community, assess the impacts of toxic wastes on their health, and challenge corporate and government policies on the dumping of hazardous materials. Her leadership led to the relocation of 833 Love Canal households.
Love Canal: the Start of a Movement
The history of Love Canal began in 1892 when William T. Love proposed connecting the upper and lower Niagara River by digging a canal six to seven miles long. Love abandoned the project after an economic depression, leaving behind a partially dug section of the canal, sixty feet wide and three thousand feet long.
The land became a municipal and chemical disposal site, principally by Hooker Chemical Corporation, as well as by the City of Niagara and the United States Army. In 1953, after filling the canal and covering it with dirt, Hooker sold the land to the Board of Education for one dollar and included in the deed transfer a “warning” of the chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer absolving Hooker of any future liability.
Perhaps because they didn’t understand the potential risks associated with Hooker’s chemical wastes, the Board of Education built an elementary school on the property. The 99th Street School was completed by 1955, and other construction began as well. In 1978, there were approximately 800 private single-family homes and 240 low-income apartments built around the canal. The community consisted of blue-collar workers with an average annual income of $10,000 – $25,000.
Homeowners were never given any warning that their property was located near a chemical waste dump. From the late 1950s through the 1970s, people repeatedly complained of odors and substances surfacing near or in their yards and on the school playground. The city, responding to these complaints, visited the area and covered the “substances” with dirt or clay.
Finally the city and county hired a consultant to investigate. In 1976, the Calspan Corporation found toxic chemical residues in the air and sump pumps of many homes at the southern end of the canal. They also found drums just beneath or on the surface, and high levels of PCBs in the storm sewer system. But the city did not follow Calspan’s mitigation recommendations.
In March of 1978, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) began collecting air and soil tests in basements and conducting a health study of the families that immediately encircled the canal. The Health Department found an increase in reproductive problems among women and high levels of chemical contaminants in soil and air.
The Love Canal Homeowners Association
Lois Gibbs, who lived in the neighborhood, was first alerted to the existance of the dump by newspaper articles describing the landfill and its proximity to the 99th Street School school. Having a small sickly child attending the school, Lois became very concerned about the danger the landfill posed. She approached the School Board armed with notes from two physicians recommending the transfer of her child to another public school. The Board refused, on the grounds that if one child was transferred, others would demand they could as well and the school would have to close.
Angered by this response, Lois began talking with other parents in the neighborhood to see if they were having problems with their children’s health. After speaking with hundreds of people, she realized that the entire community was affected. In June 1978, she started the Love Canal Parents Movement.
On August 2, 1978, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) issued a health order recommending that the 99th Street School be closed, that pregnant women and children under the age of two be evacuated, that residents not eat out of their home gardens and that they spend limited time in their basements. A few days later, the state agreed to purchase all 239 homes in the first two rings of homes closest to the canal.
That month, the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) was established to give the community a voice in the decisions made during the Love Canal environmental crisis. LCHA membership consisted of approximately 500 families living within a 10-block area surrounding the Love Canal landfill. Within a week of the health order, the residents held a public meeting, elected officers and set goals for the newly formed organization.
The “Unaffected” Community
Once the state had evacuated 239 families and began the cleanup, they erected a 10-foot fence around the evacuated area, even though nobody knew how far the chemicals had gone. The remaining community quickly began to express their anger and concerns. Their children were sick, their homes were worthless and they were innocent victims. They marched into the streets on Mother’s Day, carried symbolic coffins to the state capitol, held prayer vigils and picketed at the canal every day for weeks in the dead of winter.
Because of the pressure and persistence of the protests, the state gave what they called concessions, such as a safety plan and a $200,000 Human Services Fund to pay some of the residents’ medical expenses. But residents did not want concessions. They wanted to be evacuated too.
With the help of a dedicated volunteer scientist, LCHA began to interview families and plotted results on a map which showed a clustering of diseases. Using old aerial photographs, geological survey maps and personal photographs from residents, LCHA determined that when the area was developed, some stream beds were filled with dirt and rubble. But water still flowed easily through these routes: Even though there was no surface evidence of these stream beds, they provided an easy pathway for chemicals to flow out of the canal.
Completed in 1979, the study found increases amoung residents in miscarriages, still births, crib deaths, nervous breakdowns, hyperactivity, epilepsy and urinary tract disorders. Miscarriages were found to have increased 300%, for example, and most occurred in women who lived in the historically wet areas. From 1974 to 1978, 56% of the children in the Love Canal neighborhood were born with a birth defect, including three ears, double row of teeth, and mental retardation. There were almost three times as many defects in historically wet areas.
State health authorities quickly dismissed the study. So the community went back to the streets and explained their problems to the public. Thousands of people wrote letters and sent telegrams to the Governor, to legislators and to the President. Residents created so much pressure and public outcry that the health authorities were forced to investigate the claims.
On February 8, 1979, the health department confirmed the homeowners’ findings and issued a second evacuation order for pregnant women and children under the age of two. Finally, in October of 1980 a total evacuation of the community was ordered by President Carter. Everyone who lived at the Love Canal had the option of moving away, with the government purchasing their homes at fair market value.
The Next Chapter
Every step a government agency took to address the damage done from toxic chemicals at Love Canal, from the health studies to evacuation, was done for political reasons. None of the decisions were initiated based on scientific evidence. LCHA truly believes that if it had not been for the large, strong citizen organization, families would still be living at Love Canal with the health authorities saying there were no health problems.
The canal families didn’t know that they were being exposed to poisonous chemicals, nor were they aware that chemical wastes were being dumped in our rivers, soil, and air. Love Canal awoke a community to the unpleasantness and unfortunate realization of how toxic wastes affect out lives, and destroy our environment. Residents at Love Canal always believed that the government would automatically protect them. They were wrong; in some cases dead wrong.
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