It was 43 years ago when I travelled to Albany, New York from Love Canal to meet with the NYS Health Department. My goal was to deliver the petition from the Love Canal Parents Movement asking for the state to close the 99th Street Elementary School. August 2, 1978 was the day my whole world shifted in an unimaginable way.
While knocking on doors in the neighborhood to obtain signatures on the petition, I learned that my neighbors were sick, some had multicolored gunk coming up in the basement and seeping through the cement walls. Many neighbors shared stories with me about black oil looking substance coming up in the fields located north and south of the 99th Street School and “hot rocks” yellow looking rocks that exploded like firecrackers when the children threw them against hard surfaces. Women I spoke with were the most impacting, they told stories of innocent children they lost, pregnancies that ended in miscarriage or birth defected infants.
Our goal at the time, was to close the elementary school. The playground sat on top of the toxic site with the school building located on the perimeter of 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals. I also felt the need to educate the New York State Health Department (NYSHD) about all the other health problems that were occurring in the neighborhood. Three of us travel to Albany, NY to deliver the petitions. As we walked into the auditorium where the meeting was held, we were shocked to see so many journalists. The room had dozens of cameras and microphones on tripods.
Naively, we thought there would be a private meeting in a small office to talk about what we wanted, why it was important to close the school and take the opportunity to share the health information we uncovered while visiting our neighbors.
It didn’t take long to understand that we were being set up. There were three of us, dozens of media related people and later the health department officials and staff took the elevated stage in front of us.
Heath Commissioner Robert Whalen took the microphone and said: “. . . the Love Canal Chemical Waste Landfill constitutes an extremely serious threat and danger to health, safety and welfare of those living near it or exposed to the conditions emanating from it.” He ordered that pregnant women or families with children under the age of two living at 99th and 97th streets (that encircle the landfill) move from their homes as soon as possible. Stunned and terrified Debbie my neighbor and I stood up and began to yell at Whalen. “What are you saying? My daughter is 2 ½ years of age has she been harmed?” The journalist then began to shout questions. The chaos, noise, and shock from the news made me feel faint.
When I walked out of that building, my life was changed forever. The rest of the story is history.