Backyard Talk

Making a Bad Decision Worse – Reselling Homes at Love Canal

Earlier this week, three families living in what was once the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls, NY filed a lawsuit against the state of New York for $113 million. The lawsuit alleges that the Love Canal landfill – with over 20,000 tons of toxic waste still sitting in the midst of this suburban neighborhood – is leaking and that people living nearby have become ill from chemicals coming from the landfill.

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the toxic waste crisis at Love Canal that led to the evacuation and relocation of over 900 families who lived around the toxic waste landfill. The events at Love Canal marked an important moment in history. It led directly to a sea change in how the country manages toxic waste; it was the impetus to the passage of the federal Superfund law that provides funds to clean up the worst toxic waste sites in the country; and it was the catalyst to the birth of a movement of grassroots leaders and community based organizations that changed the environmental movement in this country.

Lois Gibbs, who led the community efforts at Love Canal and who founded and is still CHEJ’s executive director, warned against resettling any of the homes around the Love Canal landfill. In a letter to the US EPA in 1989, Gibbs argued against allowing the area to be resettled for two basic reasons. First, the 20,000 tons of toxic waste that were dumped into the landfill remained in the middle of the neighborhood. The cleanup plan did not remove any of the waste and there were many uncertainties about whether the containment system would work, especially since there was no liner at the bottom of the landfill. Second, there were unacceptable levels of toxic chemicals throughout the Love Canal neighborhood including the areas targeted for resettlement. The cleanup plan did not address contamination outside the fence that surrounded the landfill, in areas where homes, once evacuated, were resold to innocent people who thought the area was safe.

Many of the new residents, some of whom I have personally talked with, believed the area was safe. It’s what the developers told them and what government officials led them to believe. Yet in 1988 when the state completed its evaluation of the contamination throughout the neighborhood, they never concluded that the area was safe. In fact, they found that 4 of the 7 sections of the Love Canal neighborhood were not habitable. And in the sections where homes were resettled, all they were comfortable saying was that it was as “habitable as other areas of Niagara Falls.”

What they did not say was that none of the Love Canal neighborhood was habitable after their first analysis which compared the levels of contamination in Love Canal to two neighboring towns. This conclusion was not politically acceptable, so they did a second analysis. This time they compared the levels of contamination in Love Canal to two selected areas of Niagara Falls. Both of these areas were suspiciously contaminated with many of the same chemicals found at Love Canal. Not surprisingly, they found the contaminant levels in Love Canal to be similar to the contaminant levels in these two select areas of Niagara Falls.  I doubt the people who bought resettled homes at Love Canal would have done so if they had known how this decision was made.

Love Canal was never habitable and people never should have been allowed to move back in. To get a copy of Lois’ letter to EPA or to learn more about the New York state habitability decision, contact CHEJ at