Love Canal: A Brief History

Dr. Jordan Kleiman

Love Canal is an aborted canal project branching off of the Niagara River about four miles south of Niagara Falls.  It is also the name of a fifteen-acre, working-class neighborhood of around 800 single-family homes built directly adjacent to the canal.  From 1942 to 1953, the Hooker Chemical Company, with government sanction, began using the partially dug canal as a chemical waste dump.  At the end of this period, the contents of the canal consisted of around 21,000 tons of toxic chemicals, including at least twelve that are known carcinogens (halogenated organics, chlorobenzenes, and dioxin among them).  Hooker capped the 16-acre hazardous waste landfill in clay and sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board, attempting to absolve itself of any future liability by including a warning in the property deed.   

Public awareness of the disaster unfolded in the late 1970s when investigative newspaper coverage and grassroots door-to-door health surveys began to reveal a series of inexplicable illnesses—epilepsy, asthma, migraines, and nephrosis—and abnormally high rates of birth defects and miscarriages in the Love Canal neighborhood.  As it turns out, consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table and caused the chemicals to leach (via underground swales and a sewer system that drained into nearby creeks) into the basements and yards of neighborhood residents, as well as into the playground of the elementary school built directly over the canal.  After a series of frustrating encounters with apathetic NYS officials, who were slow to act but quick to dismiss the activists (most of whom were working-class women who lived in the neighborhood) as a collection of hysterical housewives, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency in 1978 and had the federal government relocate 239 families.  This left 700 families who federal officials viewed as being at insufficient risk to warrant relocation, even though tests conducted by the NYS Department of Health revealed that toxic substances were leaching into their homes.  After another hard battle, activists forced Carter to declare a second state of emergency in 1981, during which the remaining families were relocated.  The total cost for relocation of all the families was $17 million. 

Love Canal quickly came to symbolize the looming environmental disaster represented by untold numbers of toxic waste disposal sites scattered throughout America.  Legislators and activists alike have tapped the momentum generated by Love Canal activism in their efforts to deal with this dangerous and costly problem.  On the level of public policy, lawmakers used the national publicity generated by the Love Canal disaster to push for new legislation to hold polluters financially responsible for cleaning up their toxic waste sites.  The result was the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act—better known as Superfund.  A less well-known but equally important outcome of Love Canal was the emergence of a militant, grassroots “environmental justice” movement.  This movement, which was fueled by mounting frustration with mainstream environmentalism’s failure to address the disproportionate impact of toxic pollution on working-class and minority communities, launched anti-toxics campaigns in hundreds of cities across the nation. 

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