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East Palestine, OH – Repeating the Mistakes of Love Canal

Photo credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette / Getty Images

By Stephen Lester.

Shortly after the horrific Norfolk Southern train derailment occurred in East Palestine, OH, I was invited to attend a town hall meeting organized by River Valley Organizing. The purpose of the meeting was to give people the opportunity to ask questions and hopefully, get some answers.

This was about 3 weeks after the rail company made the decision to spill the contents and then burn 5 tanker cars holding vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals into a ditch alongside the railroad tracks at the site of the 38-car derailment. This intentional burn unleashed a gigantic black cloud full of particulates that enveloped the surrounding neighborhoods and farms in both Ohio and Pennsylvania (the accident was just a few miles from the state border).

It is well documented that burning chlorinated chemicals like vinyl chloride will generate dioxins. Dioxin is the name given to a group of persistent, very toxic chemicals that share similar chemical structures. The most toxic form of dioxin is 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin or TCDD. TCDD is more commonly recognized as the toxic contaminant found in “Agent Orange”  and at Love Canal, New York and Times Beach, Missouri. Dioxin is not deliberately manufactured. Rather, it is the unintended by-product of industrial processes that use or burn chlorine. It is also produced when chemicals like vinyl chloride are burned, such as what occurred in East Palestine.

At the town hall meeting, people talked about what it was like when the black cloud reached their property. One person who lived 15 miles away described burned ash material from the fire that settled on her property. Another who lived 3 miles away described how the black cloud completely smothered his property. People repeatedly asked: Was it safe for my kids to play in the yard? Is it safe to grow a garden? What is going to happen to my farm animals?

As I sat there listening, I was struck by how similar the questions were to what I had encountered when working at the Love Canal landfill in Niagara Falls, NY more than 40 years ago. People were raising important questions that deserve to be answered. But there were no clear answers. Just as it was at Love Canal.

It was also eerie how similar the response by the government authorities has been. Just like at Love Canal, the people of East Palestine are being told there’s no cause for alarm, that all the testing shows that no chemicals have been found at levels of “concern.” And just like Love Canal, the people in East Palestine are not buying it because they know things are not right. They are suffering from a range of respiratory and central nervous system symptoms including headaches, nose bleeds, runny noses, tearing eyes, and more.

As occurred at Love Canal, government scientists are not being honest with the people at East Palestine. If they did that, they would tell them what they know and what they don’t know. That would be helpful. But government won’t do that, because if they do, if they acknowledge how little is known about the link between adverse health effects and exposures to mixtures of chemicals, the people of East Palestine would demand action in the face of the huge uncertainties. Actions like paying for people to relocate from the area so that they can stop being exposed to the toxic chemicals – which are still in the air – or getting the health care they need and moving on with their lives.

It’s also unfortunate that so little had changed in the science of what we know about what happens to people who have been exposed to mixtures of chemicals like what occurred in East Palestine. This might have been understandable 40 or so years ago, but not today. It’s inexcusable that we didn’t learn from Love Canal and are repeating the same mistakes because we still know very little about widespread exposures to chemical mixtures.

The people in East Palestine deserve to be treated with respect and dignity and that includes expecting their government to act to protect their health in the face of the many uncertainties that exist in understanding the adverse health effects that result from these exposures. It’s time to do right by the people of East Palestine.    

Backyard Talk Homepage News Archive

The Day My Life Changed Forever

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.


Women’s History Month: Environmental Activists

In honor of Women’s History Month, NextAvenue highlights the incredible work of Lois Gibbs and Linda Garcia. Both women have won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for their work against environmental injustices. Although their fights are decades apart, the work at Love Canal and against the Tesoro Savage oil company demonstrate how environmental activism is still as important today as was in 1978. Read More.

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.

Homepage Superfund News

Lois Gibbs Describes the Movement she Sparked and what Today’s Activists Need to Know

Listen to the Podcast.
In 1978, Lois Gibbs was a young mother with a child in a school that was found to be built over a toxic chemical waste dump site. Lois gained international attention and incredible momentum in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s as she led the fight for environmental justice for children and families affected by the environmental disaster identified with the neighborhood where it occurred, Love Canal.
“I was waiting on someone to knock on my door and tell me what to do, to explain how I could help,” says Lois of the early days of revelations about the infamous Love Canal dump.
“But no one ever came to my door. So I did something on my own.”
Her persistent activism led to passage of the “Superfund” toxic waste site cleanup legislation.
Lois went on to found the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which has helped more than 10,000 grassroots organizations with technical, organizational or environmental education. She appears in the 2018 HBO movie Atomic Homeland and was named a “top environmentalist of the past century” by Newsweek magazine. She also has been honored with a Heinz Award and the Goldman Prize for her groundbreaking environmental work.
On this 40th anniversary of the Love Canal tragedy, Lois shares how she dealt with being called “a hysterical mother with a sickly child.” She explains the moment she most clearly saw democracy at its best, and the key to success for today’s environmental activists.
“Average people and the average community can change the world,” Lois says.
Hear how she did it, and how you can, too, on this episode of “We Can Be.”

Backyard Talk

Environmental Justice Began For Me At Love Canal

As I was cleaning out my drawer I found an old photo from Love Canal that reminded me of an extraordinary relationship that kept all Love Canal families working together. It was a picture of Sarah, from the Love Canal Renters Association with me at the 20th Anniversary celebration of Love Canal. The Love Canal community was made up of 240 rental apartments (called Griffin Manor) and 800 individual homes.  The rental units were designed for families with four to five children and were subsidized by the government.

After the first evacuation in 1978 of the two rows of homes that encircle the canal, the rest of the neighborhood was declared safe. On one side were individual homes and on the other side was Griffon Manor. As we began to organize to expand the evacuation area one of the core leaders from Griffin Manor and I held a meeting with our neighbors at Griffon Manor to explore what to do. We agreed that the more families involved the more power we would have. The state recognized that potential power as well and the afternoon before our meeting a state representative working on relocation approached me with a warning. He said, “Those people are dangerous. Look at the rap sheet on just one of the residents. You will get attacked if you go there. Cancel the meeting.”

My experience was quite different as I knew a few of the families whose children attended school with mine. They seemed like nice families to me. So, despite the warning a friend and I went to the meeting and talked about what we knew of the actions taking place and encouraged residents to join together to fight for our health and children. It was a great meeting, not threatening at all.

As we moved forward together the state began an active campaign to keep us apart. For example, news releases would talk in detail about what they were doing for the homeowners and never would mention the Griffon Manor families.  Sarah the leader of the Griffon Manor residents would tell me stories about how the state was telling her neighbors to separate from the larger group because the homeowners don’t really care about them.

The friction was mounting and nourished weekly by the state personnel. Sarah and I decided we needed to do something to keep people together. We met and decided that we would continue to work together but with parallel groups. Sarah and I would meet often and coordinate the two group’s activities but would not let the state or even our own members know this was happening for fear they would continue to interfere with our collaborations. It wasn’t ideal, but we thought there weren’t many other options as you can only focus on so many fights at a time.  Sarah and I representing the Homeowners’ Association told the state that we demanded a seat at the table for the Griffin Manor families and recognition of the Concerned Renters as an individual entity. The state agreed.

Why am I telling this story now? Because as I listen to the political comments from presidential candidates it so reminds me of the unfair and untrue characteristics of families in Griffin Manor, by state representatives.   The state’s objective was to divide and conquer, in order to do as little as possible for ordinary people, victims of the man made disaster. This is the case today as well in some of this political rhetoric.

Because the Homeowners Association didn’t allow ourselves to be pitted against the Renters Association everyone won relocation with associated financial assistance. It’s a lesson that others can learn from. Don’t let the powers divide us base on color, class or religion. We are stronger together and working together we can obtain equal rights and benefits.

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.

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

Backyard Talk

35 Years of Progress Since Love Canal

This year marks a very significant date – the 35th anniversary of the Love Canal crisis. It is hard to believe it has been that long and in recognizing this fact of life, I realize that entire generations have been born since who may know little or nothing about Love Canal and how the environmental health and justice movement began.

History is important and we need to find ways to tell the story so that we don’t repeat our mistakes and we can reap the benefits of lessons learned through oral histories. One key lesson from Love Canal is that a blue collar community with next to no resources was able to win its fight for justice and open the eyes of the nation and the world to the serious problems of environmental chemicals and their effects on public health.

Thanks to Mark Kitchell, an Oscar nominated and well known filmmaker (Berkeley in the Sixties), there’s now a compelling and thought provoking film that can be used as a tool in educating younger generations about Love Canal and the history of the environmental movement and engaging them and re-engaging the rest of us in the fight for a healthy planet. What is exciting about A Fierce Green Fire is that this film, which includes a prominent segment on Love Canal, demonstrates in real footage that change happens when people get involved.

“The main difference between my film and a lot of other environmental films is that instead of it being focused on the issues, ours is focused on the movement and activism,” said Mark Kitchell in an interview. “I feel that telling stories of activists, taking up the battle and fighting, is the best way to explicate the issues. And that was my main handle on the environmental subject, doing the movement story,” adds Kitchell. The film, narrated by such notables as Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Ashley Judd among others, received great reviews at Sundance.

As CHEJ moves forward this coming year, we are partnering with groups across the country who would like to show the film in a theater setting, at small group gatherings or house events and have a conversation about how change happens and what they might do differently in their efforts to win on environmental and environmental health and justice issues. Partnering with groups, we hope to also bring media attention to their local issues and raise funds for their group and CHEJ. It’s a plan that’s hard to pass up.

If your group is interested in hosting a local viewing, please contact CHEJ. Together we can inspire people to take action to protect health and our planet.