Backyard Talk

Examining the Legacy of Community Activism on Love Canal’s Anniversary

by Liz Goodiel, CHEJ Science & Tech Fellow
This Friday, August 2, 2019 marks the anniversary of the historic evacuation of Love Canal. The landmark tragedy sparked an awareness across the nation to the environmental dangers present in everyday communities. The unfortunate reality of this event remains that the Love Canal is not an isolated event. Throughout the last half a century numerous towns and cities have come forward with cases of bad pollution. Despite decades of education and awareness, toxic tragedies have occurred and continue to occur in locations across the country. Many communities to date are still organizing together to fight similar incidents as Love Canal and continue to face challenges in their effort to achieve remediation or evacuation status.
Love Canal was an idyllic vision established by William T. Love in 1982 as paradise community connected to Niagara Falls by a canal. Due to economic failures, the canal project was abandoned and converted into a municipal and chemical waste dumping site by the Hooker Chemical Corporation and the City of Niagara. In 1953 the Hooker Chemical Corporation turned the land over the city where the canal was covered up, along with the secret chemicals it housed, and the construction of a new community began. With an understanding that the area was perfectly safe for residence, hundreds of homes were built as families migrated into the area.
Nearly 20 years later, the city disclosed information regarding the toxins present in the community, its subsequent health effects, and no details about how the government was going to right the wrong. Lois Gibbs, along with her neighbors, united over their shared frustration and general concern for their exposed families and established the Love Canal Parents Movement. Together the group voiced their concern and fought for change that finally came on August 2, 1978. The New York State Department of Health ordered the evacuation of pregnant women and children under the age of two to be evacuated. Just five days later, the rest of the community received relief as the government agreed to buy all 239 homes closest to the center of the canal.
Following the Love Canal evacuation, other communities began receiving attention in response to harmful pollutants poisoning the residents. One similar instance occurred only a few years later on the opposite side of the country. San Jose, California, a seemingly beautiful spot to raise a family, absent of any visible smoke stacks or toxic air releases, began noticing some unexpected birth defects in 1982. Fairchild Semiconductor Corporation, a computer technology producer, found evidence of nearly 50,000 gallons of leaked toxic chemicals underground. The most alarming chemical discovery was that of trichloroethane (TCE), a cancer causing toxin. San Jose residents began raising concern when mothers of the area compared shared miscarriage experiences and birth defects among their young children. Nearly 50 days after the discovery of the leak by the state health department, a local newspaper released the disclosed information to residents. Larraine Ross, a distressed mother of a daughter with a serious heart defect took action and united 15 neighbors together to sue the Fairchild Corporation, along with the area’s main water supplier, Great Oak Water. The case concluded in 1986 with a multimillion dollar success settlement in support of nearly 530 affected residents in the Los Paseos area.
Despite decades of environmental activism from communities banning together to fight for clean air and water, there are still groups today fighting for a voice and an action for change. North Birmingham, Alabama has been a booming home to the steel and coal industry for decades. The facilities in the area have contributed chemical pollutants including arsenic, lead and benzo(a)pyrene. After constant investigation, in 2011 the EPA recommended a “time-critical removal action” for the 35th Avenue Superfund Site. The EPA determined a necessary clean up for the northern region of the community, yet years passed with no movement. In July of 2017 it was revealed why there was such a lag in government support for clean up. Alabama Representative Oliver Robinson was convicted for bribery by Drummond Company, a large contributor to the pollution in the region. Rep. Robinson took the bribes in an effort to keep the EPA from expanding the Superfund site and for keeping the area off of the NPL list for receiving advanced community pollution remediation. After the trial and years of battling pollution contributing facilities, community residents are still fighting for significant change and relocation away from the reach of cancerous toxins.
August 2, 1978 marked the beginning of a movement for communities to unite together for the shared vision of a clean backyard. The success of evacuation for Love Canal residents stands as an inspiration and model that through organization and persistence environmental change is possible. There are many cases throughout the last few decades that show the success cities and towns have had in community remediation. However, even today the battle still rages on as cities and towns across the country fight for the same right to clean air and water.

Homepage News Archive

Inspiring Women of Ecology

In fighting to protect her community from toxic waste, this housewife started a movement that led to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund.
Read More.

Backyard Talk

Experts for the People – Shut Out by the Mass Media By Ralph Nader

Ever wonder how the television, radio and newspaper people select whom they are going to interview or get quotes from when they are reporting the news or producing a feature? I do. What I’ve learned is that they go to guests that are connected with the established powers—such as think tanks in Washington, D.C. that work on “the military industrial complex” policy (to borrow President Eisenhower’s words) and somehow lean toward more war mongering (e.g. NPR and the U.S.-Iran relationship) or backing more weapon systems (such as a new nuclear bomb arsenal and more F-35s and air craft carriers).
You won’t be hearing from MIT Professor Emeritus Ted Postol on the chronic failures of the anti-ballistic missile program (spending $13 billion this coming year).
Whether it is NPR, PBS, the network news programs, the Sunday news interview shows and too often the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and the Wall Street Journal their interviewees are the defenders of the status quo or those with corporatists’ viewpoints.
These news outlets seem oblivious to the blatant economic conflicts of interest inherent in groups such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and professors who moonlight with corporations. These interviewees have economic and ideological axes to grind that are not disclosed to the general viewers, listeners and readers, when they are merely described as “experts.”
There are real experts and specialists, with no axe to grind, who are so ignored by the media that they have almost become nonpersons, despite their past proven records of achievements for the public interest, and for the people’s well-being.
Here are some examples of experienced people whose veracity and honesty you can take to the press and media outlets:

  1. David Freeman, probably the most knowledgeable, experienced authority on energy in the United States. A lawyer and engineer, he was an advisor to Presidents, Governors, ran four major utilities, including the giant Tennessee Valley Authority. He was also the author of key studies on energy policies starting in the nineteen seventies and presently is negotiating the shutdown of California’s last atomic energy plant with its owner, Pacific Gas and Electric Corporation.
  2. Nicholas Johnson, former FCC Commissioner, author of many books and timely commentaries on communications subjects (e.g. “How to Talk Back to Your TV Set”) and has been teaching at the University of Iowa Law School.
  3. Karen Ferguson, head of Pension Rights Center since the mid-seventies, has been involved in Congressional policies, judicial decisions, organizing retirees to assert their rights and generally watchdogging the increasing pension crisis in our country.
  4. Jamie Love, the expert on drug patent abuses, drug industry pricing power, international efforts to counteract these “pay or die” policies. He has been a major figure in bringing down the price of AIDS drugs for developing countries.
  5. Rena Steinzor, law professor, author of books such as Why Not Jail?, organizer of the Center for Progressive Reform and corporate crime specialist.
  6. Janine Jackson, long-time media critic documenting weekly noteworthy bias, censorship and commercial distortion of the news.
  7. Danielle Brian, director of the Project on Government Oversight has had much to say accurately about the massive military budget, redundant weapon systems and their waste, fraud and abuse over three decades.
  8. Jesselyn Radack, former Justice Department lawyer, represents whistleblowers on national security wrongdoing and is an acknowledged legal expert on free speech in these sensitive areas.
  9. Greg LeRoy, directs Good Jobs First and knows a great deal about corporate welfare, giveaways to sports stadiums, Amazon and the whole ‘business development’ subsidies at the local and state level in the U.S. He is the author, among other publications, of The Great American Jobs Scam: Corporate Tax Dodging and the Myth of Job Creation.
  10. Mark Green, one of the nation’s experts on campaign finance rackets and reform, author of over twenty books, including Losing Our Democracy, and experienced as a candidate in New York State elections.
  11. Ralf Hotchkiss, former MacArthur Genius awardee, inventor and founder of Whirlwind Wheelchair and a successful advocate for people with disabilities having mobility without having to pay monopoly prices for shoddy wheelchairs in the U.S. and developing countries.
  12. Lois Gibbs, coming out of the Love Canal tragedies in Niagara Falls, NY, she organized arguably the leading grass roots movements against poisoning of neighborhoods around the country. She is an accomplished author, a speaker and is the director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which works with hundreds of local citizen fighters for health and safety.

Some of the above were featured in the mass media years ago; others have been relegated to the shadows of our public news and features for almost their entire careers. The slanted selections by media gatekeepers are getting worse. Increasingly, TV and radio anchors interview their own reporters, not experts like Robert McIntyre, lawyer and founder of the highly regarded Citizens for Tax Justice. Too often the Sunday network TV political shows tap into the same stable of Washington pundits and commentators.
Readers and viewers can make their own lists of media-excluded, knowledgeable persons, be they at the local, state or national levels. On our public airwaves, after the FCC repealed the “Fairness Doctrine” in 1987, bloviators such as Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity and Mark Levin, completely dominate our airtime with their corporatist and hate-filled soliloquies. These “champions” of the free market have no problem using the public airwaves free of charge. As owners of the public airwaves and buyers of print journalism, let’s demand higher standards for experts in journalism. Let’s demand that the media seek out people who know their facts and work in the people’s interest and give them airtime.

Homepage News Archive

RIT professor’s new book revisits Love Canal

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.
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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.”

To read the original version of this article, click here


Backyard Talk

What Can We Learn From Pepsi Removing Aspartame?

A few weeks ago, Pepsi Co. announced that it would remove aspartame from its diet product lineup and replace it with sucralose. Previously, other companies followed similar decisions to phase out ingredients from their product lineups. General Mills announced that it would phase out the preservative butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) from their cereals, Kraft Inc. announced the removal of artificial dyes and preservatives form their Mac & Cheese products, and Chipotle stated that it would remove all genetically modified foods (GMO) from it’s products.

The question for all this now becomes, why? Why are these huge corporations going through the trouble of removing these ingredients?

Could it be that they figured out they are dangerous? Nope. In the case of Pepsi, although aspartame has been linked to cancer, developmental problems and nervous system effects, the overwhelming majority of the literature has found no significant association between its consumption and any detrimental health effects. In the case of Kraft, the artificial dyes being phased out have been linked to hyperactivity disorders in children, but again these studies have been inconclusive. So, clearly, these corporations did not make the changes out of the goodness of their hearts and out of concern for their customers’ health.

Take Pepsi for example. It’s clear that safety is not the reason for their switch, as most of the literature found that no health effects can be directly attributed to aspartame. The answer may be more simplistic. The declining sales of diet Pepsi products and the poor public perception of aspartame, reported by Beverage Digest, seem less like mere coincidence and more like cause and effect. Pepsi, in all likelihood, made the switch because consumers demanded it.

All this highlights the power that people have over companies. Now, if you ask these companies they will fervently tell you that making these changes was their plan all along. However, it’s easy to see that the threat of losing consumers drove their actions.

So, what does all this mean? What can we learn from Pepsi removing aspartame? I’d sum it up like this: the people hold power. Not just with food companies, but with ANY company. People who are informed act, and their actions matter to corporations. Because although they have the power of money, you have the power of the masses.  That’s why CHEJ’s new Leadership Training Academy is going to be invaluable to people from all over the country in the coming years. The ability for young emerging leaders in the environmental justice field to pushing for corporate change will be crucial. With Lois leading the academy, the new generation of leaders can be sure to learn from the best.

News Archive

Love Canal activist Lois Gibbs joins R.I. effort to keep law on school siting strong

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.

Story by: Richard Salit
Original Link:
Backyard Talk

Touring with Lois Gibbs

If you haven’t read the story “From homemaker to hell-raiser in Love Canal”, you should. And to make it easier here’s the link.
In the story I loved what Luella Kenny, another Love Canal activist had to say about Lois. “She was like a hurricane and we just kept going.” This reminded me of the Toxic Tour that Lois and I took around Ohio a couple of years ago. We traveled to all corners of the state, covering over 900 miles in just 4 days. I think of Lois as having the energy of the Energizer Bunny. With every community we visited it was like someone put new batteries in her and off she went. She is a tireless fighter for what is right.
The writer of “From homemaker to hell-raiser in Love Canal” described the Center for Health, Environment & Justice office as “being squired in a third-floor corner office in a nondescript building in Fairfax County, Va., a few miles from Washington, D.C. A tiny gray sign hangs outside the door, betraying no sense of the history inside.” While all true, those inside find no need of fancy offices in expensive buildings. It is more important to fight for what is right for the environment and the grassroots community groups we work with. The CHEJ extended family is a very close group of individuals. We celebrate together, we are sad together, we have disagreements with each other, and we hug each other. The CHEJ family includes all the community groups that we have ever worked with. Boy what a family reunion that would be if we ever all got together.
I won’t start naming names because I know I would leave someone out but, to all of you out there that are the Lois Gibbs of your community I say thank you for doing what you have done or are doing. If we haven’t heard from you for a while, give us a call to let us know how you are doing.