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History Club Highlights from 2004-2005

 

History Club Field Trip to Love Canal

 

On April 2, 2005, the History Club traveled to the City of Niagara Falls to visit the community once known as Love Canal (it has since been renamed Black Creek Village).  With the possible exception of the Dust Bowl, the Love Canal tragedy is the most famous environmental disaster in U.S. history.  It is also the site of one of the earliest and most influential struggles of the Environmental Justice Movement. 

 

Serving as guides for the trip were R.I.T. history professor Rich Newman, who has published several articles on Love Canal and is writing a major book on the subject; Luella Kenny, who was an influential activist in the community’s struggle to force Hooker Chemical and various government officials to take responsibility for their actions (as a research scientist at Roswell Park Cancer Institute, she was also one of the neighborhood’s few white-collar residents); and Professor Jordan Kleiman, who teaches about Love Canal in his environmental history courses at SUNY-Geneseo and who organized the trip.

 

While Love Canal may seem like an odd place for a History Club field trip, it is in fact a fascinating historical site.  At the center of the community sits the 70-acre hazardous waste site, which, although it still contains 21,000 tons of highly toxic chemical waste, was removed from the Superfund’s National Priority List by the Bush Administration in 2004.  As part of the clean-up process, the EPA outfitted the fenced-in landfill (which comprises around 16 of the site) with a barrier drainage system, monitoring wells, and a leachate collection and treatment system.  Just outside the eight-foot chain-link fence sit a few scattered houses in the inner rings of the neighborhood, the vast majority having been demolished after their owners were relocated.  The outer rings remain intact and are fully inhabited, despite the fact that Luella Kenny and many others believe the area is unsafe, and despite the fact that long-term health data on area residents is still incomplete.  When the EPA delisted the site in 2004, Lois Gibbs, who was the leading activist in the struggle and who went on to establish Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (later renamed the Center for Health, Environment, and Justice), stated to a New York Times reporter:  ''Nothing is different from what it was five years ago except that the E.P.A. needs to look good.”  (The agency needed to “look good” after becoming the target of widespread criticism for its handling of the World Trade Center clean-up.)

 

The landfill itself is virtually unmarked.  With the exception of one small sign posting an emergency phone number (but no mention of the words “Love Canal”), there is nothing to remind onlookers of the events that unfolded there some three decades ago.  Without knowing the history of the site, most visitors would never know that they were looking at the nation’s most notorious toxic landfill—unless, that is, one were to encounter the small monument erected by the Love Canal Rea Redevelopment Agency a quarter mile away.  On the face of the granite slab is a highly misleading time-line that celebrates the allegedly great deeds of government officials who allegedly restored the neighborhood to ecological normalcy.  Not a single activist is mentioned, even though it took their heroic and occasionally drastic action to spur government officials to action.  As Luella Kenny says, the real monument stands a few hundred yards beyond the granite slab.  She is referring to the house in which she and her family lived before being relocated, the same house where her seven-year-old son died from complications stemming from nephrosis after being exposed to toxins in the creek that flowed through the Kenny’s backyard.

 

For more information on the history of Love Canal, click HERE.

 

Historical photograph of the capped Love Canal landfill prior to demolition of inner-ring houses.  The photo faces northeast from the LaSalle Expressway.  The Niagara River would be just below the expressway in a larger photo. 

 

Looking across the landfill site at the EPA treatment plant.

 

The students, Luella Kenny, and myself standing in front of our bus.  The landfill is about ten feet to our right.  On our left is empty space where the inner-ring houses used to stand.

 

A small number of inner-ring residents chose to stay when offered relocation funds.  The blue house in the center of the frame is about 100 feet from the landfill.

 

Looking north up the street directly east of the landfill.  On your right is where the inner-ring houses used to stand.

 

Standing at the love Canal memorial a quarter mile from the landfill itself.  From right to left:  R.I.T. historian Rich Newman, Love Canal activist Luella Kenny, and SUNY-Geneseo historian Jordan Kleiman.

 

Luella and students standing in front of memorial, with outer-ring houses in the background.  Luella Kenny talking to the group.

 

Luella Kenny’s old house.