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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Love Canal: Then and Now

Air Date: Week of

It was twenty years ago this August that President Jimmy Carter ordered an evacuation of Love Canal, a peaceful suburb in Niagara Falls, New York. At the time, many residents had just discovered that their homes were built on a toxic waste dump. It was a rallying moment for the environmental movement. Toxic dumping became a big issue, igniting many passions. As the anniversary of the evacuation approaches, Vince Winkel takes a look at the history of Love Canal, as well as the present-day concerns of its current and former residents.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Twenty years ago this August, residents of a quiet, leafy suburb in Niagara Falls, New York, were ordered to evacuate their neighborhood. Their homes and schools, it turns out, sat atop a hazardous waste dump. Love Canal was a defining moment in history, one that catapulted toxic waste into national worry. Americans pressured lawmakers to create Superfund, the multi-billion-dollar program designed to clean up the most hazardous waste sites. And across the country the fight against toxic dumping grabbed the headlines. But the saga isn't over for former and present-day residents of Love Canal. Vince Winkel has our report.

(Electric mowers)

WINKEL: A landscaping crew is trimming a lawn along 101st Street in Niagara Falls. The grass is green and lush. But the small house is boarded up; sheets of plywood cover the windows here and on dozens of other nearby homes east of the Love Canal. In the thriving north side of the canal just 100 yards away, children are playing on a swing set.

(Squeaking swings and shouting children)

WINKEL: That's because 8 years ago, New York State officials started selling the houses here after they received a green light from the state's Department of Health. But a debate still lingers today about the legacy of Love Canal. What motivated the evacuations of 1978 and 1980? And is it now safe to live there? Joanne Hale is one of countless former residents asking those questions.

HALE: When you put your head down on your pillow at night, that's the last thing you think about: Love Canal. I mean, it's the first thing and it's the last thing. If your kid is sick, it can be a common cold, but the first thing you do is you panic, and you think oh my God, this kid is from Love Canal.

WINKEL: Joanne Hale didn't always live in fear. She says before 1978, this quiet corner of Niagara Falls was a great place to raise a family.
But during the summer of 1978, residents began asking what lurked under the ground in their neighborhood, and the problems it could cause.

WOMAN (T.V. spot): I carried a child for 9 months. Our little Julie was stillborn.
(Cries) The loss of our child may be a direct result to the chemicals.
Please don't allow this to happen to anyone else before you get them out.

WINKEL: The story made television headlines after Niagara Gazette reporter Michael Brown revealed to residents that their homes had been built adjacent to a toxic waste site that measured some 3,000 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 40 feet deep. Hooker Chemical converted an old canal, dug by William Love in the late 19th century, into a waste site. It was eventually filled with 22,000 tons of waste, including hundreds of chemical compounds. The canal was covered with dirt. An elementary school was built almost directly above it, and rings of modest homes slowly grew out from the canal site. Michael Brown explains how the residents reacted when they learned that chemicals were seeping into their basements and lawns.

BROWN: There was a seething anxiety. I mean, you could feel things like a volcano of emotion ready to erupt, because they knew now that -- because of what I'd written -- that there was benzene in the air. They knew that there were people who felt that their health was affected, including birth defects among youngsters.

WINKEL: On August 2, 1978, state health officials ordered all pregnant women and children under the age of 2 to leave the neighborhood. Panic set in as residents watched their story play out on national television.

WOMAN (T.V. report) (shouting): Could you please tell me, do I let my 3-year-old stay?
She has a birth defect now. What do you expect of us? That is my child! Where is the difference?

WINKEL: A week later President Jimmy Carter called for the permanent evacuation of the two rings of homes around the canal, 239 houses. A fence was put up around the houses and the school. The structures were demolished and buried. Those whose homes weren't within the first two rings of houses were left in a sort of limbo. Sam Giarizzo lived a few blocks from the north end of the canal and still lives there today.

GIARIZZO: When the canal issue broke out it was an awful feeling. It was all panicky around here. Neighbors were fighting among themselves. You didn't know what was going on. The news media was hyping everything up.
And everybody was worried sick.

WINKEL: The intense media focus aggravated some residents, but Love Canal brought others together in their demands for change on both local and national levels.

LEVINE: I think that it revived the environmental movement very, very much.

WINKEL: Adi Levine is a sociologist and author of Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People.

LEVINE: The environmental movement sort of came to one of its little peaks in the early 1970s with Earth Day and the passage of the environmental protection laws. And after that initial burst of a lot of popular interest, it then became very much the topic of professionals: attorneys, for instance, and scientists. Along came Love Canal with real people that you could see, who could tell their story.

WINKEL: Among those real people was Lois Gibbs, a housewife and mother in Niagara Falls who led her neighborhood's revolt against the toxic dump.
She says the human dimension of the crisis is still felt today.

GIBBS: People died, both from the diseases and from the stresses. People got divorced as a result of the stresses. People committed suicide because we created a media circus. And the media circus was because that was the only way to put the political pressure on those who were in power. And, you know, we created some problems as a result of our organizing and our work. But we also saved many lives, and it's just -- it's really sad in this country that you have to organize this way.

WINKEL: The efforts of activists like Lois Gibbs led to a second evacuation of the Love Canal neighborhood in 1980. Authorities ordered families to leave 550 homes. Some residents and experts now question that decision. Dr. Kitty Gelberg is a New York State health inspector.

GELBERG: The second evacuation may not have been necessary. At the time, people were scared. They definitely had chemicals rising up in their areas. Their back yards, they had smells in their basement.

WINKEL: Even the journalist who broke the Love Canal story, Michael Brown, still wonders whether the press may have overstepped its bounds.

BROWN: There were some results released that some journalists from other parts of the country couldn't put into proper perspective. So, I think in some ways that they may have gone overboard in 1980. As a result, the government went overboard, too.

WINKEL: Lois Gibbs thinks those potential dangers remain. She laments the decision to resell the houses that the state bought in 1978 and '80.

GIBBS: It makes me sick when they say we're selling these homes in the northern end. What is going on? There's another agenda that the State and Federal government has that they're willing to kill people for.

WINKEL: But officials with New York's Department of Health in Albany say the chemicals are contained and that the surrounding area has been tested. Dr. Ed Horn is an epidemiologist for the state.

HORN: These studies laid out what was felt to be the best science in terms of whether there is or is not a risk--additional risk to living in these neighborhoods, because of chemicals from the Love Canal. And the studies said that the areas which were declared habitable have no additional risks as a consequence of being close to the Love Canal.

WINKEL: State health official Dr. Gelberg admits that an all-encompassing health study involving former Love Canal residents has never been done.

GELBERG: There are a number of studies that have been conducted and all of those studies have generally indicated that there is no association, but there are problems with all of the studies. Epidemiology was a relatively new science at the time, and there are a lot of issues that we know of today, that we didn't know of at that time, that really make the results questionable.

WINKEL: Those who oppose rehabitation of the neighborhood point to anecdotal evidence. They say there was a marked increase in birth defects, miscarriages, and severe skin disorders in the area during the 1970s. Two hundred and thirty once-empty homes north of the dump have been resold. For Sam Giarizzo, who never left the neighborhood and for 15 years was the only resident of his block, the resettlement is a form of vindication.

GIARIZZO: People are moving back in, you know why? Because after all this testing they found that this place is safer than any place in the country. I feel safe. I know what I got.

(Demolition machinery)

WINKEL: This summer the Environmental Protection Agency gave approval for demolishing the last 63 uninhabitable houses east of the canal site. An area which, unlike the north, did not receive a clean bill of health for residential use. Instead, an office park is in the works.

(Calling crows)

WINKEL: Today, Love Canal's empty streets are home to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of crows. Pat Brown, who still lives nearby, visits the old neighborhood frequently to gaze at the spot where her home once stood behind the fence. She says she can't help but return to the site.

BROWN: They left me a tombstone. My driveway is still there. I can drive down the street and that's what I think of it as. Just like when you lose a loved one and you bury them, you go back and see a tombstone. And they left me my tombstone. Behind the big green fence.


WINKEL: For Living on Earth, I'm Vince Winkel reporting.



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