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.

Media Releases

Just Moms STL & CHEJ File Complaint with United Nations

“This place is disease. It takes your heart away; it takes your spirit away. And something’s got to end.  Somebody has got to help us because there are people stranded here. My kids are stranded here.  Somebody from the outside has got to come and save us.”      
-Bob Terry a local resident pleading to the United Nations for help in his testimony
May 3, 2016 — This afternoon Dawn Chapman, Karen Nickel, from Just Moms StL in St. Louis, Missouri, Lois Gibbs, Center for Health, Environment & Justice delivered a request on behalf of American families living in harm’s way of a Chernobyl like event to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and the Environment, Mr. John Knox. Ms. Nicole Bjerler, Mr. Knox’s colleague will be meeting with the Just Moms STL delegation to accept the Tribunal Summary Documents, Complaint and Transcript as he is currently in Switzerland.
The community has exhausted every possible government and non-governmental option for relief within the United States leaving the United Nations as the next level of authority.
Community has asked the state to act but only have been informed of the pending crisis of a “Chernobyl like event,” (Attorney General, MO). The US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) has done little since 1990 and done little to date to stop the fire from reaching the radioactive wastes. State and federal legislators have introduced a federal bill that would transfer the cleanup from USEPA to the Corps of Engineers because of no confidence in US EPA. The bill passed the Senate and is in the house committee being queried. This bill does nothing to relieve the daily exposures and urgent need to get out of the area before an explosion or other disastrous event.

  • On a daily basis flares around the Bridgeton landfill, which is burning beneath the surface, release chemicals that are toxic to human health at levels above permitted health based standards. These chemicals travel through the air and into the surrounding community. Children waiting at bus stops and playing outside must breathe this toxic air.
  •  Although there is cover over the burning landfill, however when materials below the surface burn and reduce in size, the cover material collapses causing a rupture in the cover material. This results in smoke containing toxic chemicals to be released into the air of the surrounding community. Smoke at times is so thick that it is difficult to maneuver an automobile due to visibility and travels across the street blanketing adjacent homes and playground.
  • The entire site which was designated a U.S. federal Superfund site in 1990. Yet the USEPA has failed to complete mapping of the site to define where the buried radioactive waste is located. After more than two decades no one understands where the radioactive wastes are.
  • Children are suffering and dying from cancer at an alarming rate. State health studies have clearly documented increased childhood brain cancer risks in nearby neighborhoods. Today the number of children with brain cancer is over 300 times what would be expected.
  • Public schools are concerned about an event which will cause students and school employees to remain in a “shelter in place” situation for a long period of time. Parents were asked to bring to school a supply of medications that children take before and after school in the event they cannot go home. This is an unacceptable situation especially for preschool children ages 3 to 4 to be without their parents overnight.
  • Families with members that are vulnerable to respiratory impacts are at risk daily. Windows must remain closed year round. Outdoor activities such as yard work, home repairs and organized sports are near impossible. Quality of life standards are negatively impacted as a result of not being able to sit outdoors, decorate for holidays or enjoy a child’s sporting event.
  • Lastly, tucking your child into bed at night or sending them to school in the morning and not knowing if an event will occur that day, as a result of the fire reaching the radioactive wastes.