A Community Analysis at the Heart of the Superfund Era
Environmental health has been a highly debated topic since the 1970s. Today, this issue is even more critical, with the tireless citizen-led initiatives and activism towards the accountability of the state’s and market’s ignorance of community health and sanitary living conditions. The state has clearly not been doing their civic duty of protecting our common good, and the market has very evidently been creating jobs for self benefit at the expense of the planet and its denizens. Nowadays with the aid of the news we see many forms of activism and protest focused on environmental degradation in marginalized communities – the community taking responsibility into their own hands seems to be the only way to improve their lives and that of the community they reside in. However, before aiding communities in their fight for the right of the planet and their health, an extremely thorough community study is required, one that constitutes all parties involved, in order to understand the varying mindsets involved that resulted in the abhorrent decisions that may have resulted in the destruction of our planet and loss of human lives, but also set in motion a movement that initiated great change in community awareness and environmental policy across the United States. To understand this better, it would be best to look at the epicenter of the environmental health movement – Love Canal, New York. This paper will look at the creation of Love Canal and its transition in the 1950s from a municipal dumping ground to a residential neighborhood emanating from a school. The history of Love Canal will be followed by a brief summary of the events of the tragedy that led to the creation of the Superfund Era. This paper will also attempt a community study of the two main parties of the Love Canal incident – the neighborhood of Love Canal and the Hooker Chemical Corporation.
Located a mere 10-minute drive from the iconic Niagara Falls, Love Canal is a neighborhood in the state of New York whose lamentable story began in 1890, with the founding of an urban utopia 10 miles north of Love Canal called “Model City” by William T. Love, an ambitious entrepreneur of the Western Railroad Corporation. With an unfinished vision of housing for 1 million people and access to a canal originating from the Niagara River, several parks, and energy from a hydroelectric power plant, he envisioned the city’s booming industrial developments at the time would require model company towns for its employees and hydroelectricity that could generate endlessly from Niagara Falls. Very quickly, Love expanded his plans and lined up grants from financial giants in New York, Chicago, and England and rapidly increased interest in development of the area.
While Love’s vision for Model City expanded fast, it shrunk twice as rapidly. The economic depression known as the “Panic of 1893”, followed by another financial scare in 1907 caused several investors to drop out of the project. With his project completely left in its dream state, Love abandoned the project in 1894 with a few foundries and just one mile of the canal dug (as seen in Fig. 1) and left dry, as Congress had implemented a law that barred redirecting water from the Niagara River to preserve the Falls. By 1910, the last set of properties built in the area were sold at a public auction after being subject to foreclosure. With the site left marred by people, nature began to take control of the site, with water gradually flowing into the small canal, beginning its short-lived stint as a swimming and skating venue for the local children. In a decade, by 1920 the canal was used by the public and the city as a municipal dumping ground, where city waste and chemical refuse and chemical refuse were discarded. Of the several entities that participated in this atrocious accumulation of refuse, the primary contributors were the Hooker Chemical Corporation, the City of Niagara Falls and the United States Army, dumping anything from city garbage, to chemical warfare materials and even radioactive components of the Manhattan Project.
Hooker Chemical began to use the site as a dumping ground in 1942, after obtaining permission from the Niagara Power and Development Company to dump waste into the then stagnant canal. Hooker Chemical drained the canal and lined it with clay, in an attempt to protect seepage from the sludge-filled barrels (as seen in Fig. 2), before purchasing the canal itself in 1947. The following year, the City of Niagara Falls ceased use of the site as a dumping ground, leaving Hooker as the sole user and owner of the site. At the start of the 1950s when the city was experiencing a population boom, the Niagara Falls City School District proposed building several new schools, one of which would be situated over the canal. In March 1952, the superintendent of the Niagara Falls School Board approached Hooker with the proposal of purchasing the site. Hooker came to the conclusion that selling the site would alleviate them from future liabilities with their chemical dumping ground. With the closing of the canal dumping ground in 1953, Hooker noticed the area’s likelihood for development, and filled the canal to sell to the Niagara Falls School Board for the sum of $1 (as seen in the timeline in Fig. 3). Hooker Chemical informed the school board about their buried chemical refuse, but also chose to absolve themselves of all legal responsibility in case the waste proved harmful for the community’s health. What was fascinating was that despite Hooker’s strong advice that the school should be built nearby, whereas the canal site be used for only park purposes, the Board chose to neglect it and follow their original plan. The Niagara Falls School Board hired private contractors and began development of the site immediately after procuring it, starting with an elementary school to be built directly above the canal site – the 99th Street School. In early 1954, the school’s architect noted his discovery of dump sites during excavation, and urged the Board to reconsider their site decision. The Board then decided to move the school and playground 85 feet north of their initial site. When the school was completed the following year, a huge plot of land on the site crumbled and exposed chemical drums that mixed with rainwater and leaked. Almost ignoring the environmental warnings, the Board issued the construction of another school nearby – the 93rd Street School in 1955. By 1957, low-income and single family residences were being built adjacent to the landfill site, complete with construction for underground sewer systems, despite Hooker’s attempts at convincing the Board otherwise. While building gravel sewer beds for the homes, the construction crews accidentally broke through the clay seal used to line the canal, breaching its walls and risking seepage. Furthermore, the City of Niagara Falls purposely removed part of the clay lining to use as filling for the 93rd Street School and punched holes through it for water infrastructure and the LaSalle Expressway, located just south of Love Canal. This gave a chance for buried toxic wastes to escape through the manmade gaps in the canal during the rainy months of the year (as seen in Fig. 4).
The land where the homes were being built was not part of the agreement between the school board and Hooker; thus, none of these residents knew the canal’s history. There was no monitoring or evaluating of the chemical wastes stored under the ground. Additionally, the clay cover of the canal which was supposed to be impermeable began to crack. Residents began to notice foul smells and black liquids oozing out of the ground above the canal and even in their basements (as seen in fig. 5). They were always suspicious about it and complained about the odors and sludge for years, but only received responses the later half of the 1970s, more than 20 years later. In 1976, the City of Niagara Falls hired a technology consultant to conduct a study of the canal site, where they found toxic chemical residues in the air and sump pumps of a high percentage of homes at the southern end of the canal. The lackadaisical behavior of Hooker Chemical Corporation and the Niagara Falls School Board, not to mention the several “random tests” by the State Department went by unchecked till 1978, by which time news of Love Canal spread across the globe, becoming a global emblem of toxic waste nightmares. A reporter for the Niagara Gazette summed up the town’s unfortunate rise to fame at the time, stating that “from Moscow to Malibu, the world is learning about Love Canal”. However, at the source, residents’ anger bubbled up rapidly from various community-led events on sharing experiences and stories, further inciting complaints to local and state government.
With the rise of protest groups in the second half of 1978, residents began to demand a say in the decision-making process during this crisis. Groups such as the Love Canal Homeowners Association, led by Lois Marie Gibbs, a mother whose child was affected by the escaped toxins at Love Canal, now the Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ), and the Concerned Love Canal Renters Association (CLCRA), led by community activist and resident of a nearby federal housing project, Elene Thornton. Through these organizations, the entire community came together to protest and assert their concerns that rose from years of discrimination and neglect. Majority of the protesters were women – mothers and wives – with not much of a college education, no public relations experience, and little knowledge of any government process. These women were in no mood for games, and formed the backbone for the formidable grassroots movement at Love Canal, so much that a New York Times reporter was quoted praising their “skills at speaking to classes, confronting politicians, feeding reporters, and dramatizing for the cameras that sociologists come by to observe”. These concerned mothers and wives were constantly berated by male government figures through sexism and aggressive quips, even from the then New York State Governor Hugh Carey. Much to the government’s chagrin, these activists whom they considered to be “overreacting women” eventually became “political leaders” by the media for the many years to come.
With time and effort from the residents of Love Canal, there came a mixture of results. The enraged voices from months of protest resulted in a neighborhood-wide evacuation issued in May 1980 by then President Jimmy Carter, after which he visited the site in October 1980 to sign a bill that ensured funding for the permanent relocation of the 950 families of Love Canal. The state and federal governments followed with a $15 million purchase to purchase and demolish homes in and around Love Canal. It took 15 years after the start of the relocation of the Love Canal residents for the federal government rule that Hooker Chemical had been negligent in handling their waste and sale of land to the School Board. They agreed to pay $98 million to cover New York State’s cleanup of the site and $129 million to cover the federal government’s cleanup costs as retribution for their harm to the environment. Now, after 40 years and $400 million of Superfund cleanup, Love Canal no longer resembles its initial persona, a classic American neighborhood of quaint suburban life (as seen in Fig. 6). In fact, even after all this time residents are complaining of a multitude of health issues and birth defects, ranging from stunted growth, seizures, rashes, miscarriages, and leukemia. While a majority of fines from Hooker Chemical went into environmental remediation and purchasing the affected properties, a health fund was created, a statewide health study was conducted, and several residents were compensated for their losses in the following years.
So what was ideal about Love Canal that it was considered a site for development despite its history as a chemical wasteland? Located within a few miles from the industrial and urban heart of Niagara Falls, Love Canal was a perfect distance away from the congested developments of the city, well within reach to work and play. Furthermore, this area was bounded by Niagara River to the south and Black Creek (now Bergholtz Creek) to the north – features that helped create a physical and acoustic buffer from the hustle and bustle of Niagara Falls’ urban hub. Back then it truly did seem like the ideal location to live. By the early 1970s over almost three hundred homes stood alongside the canal, after which private contractors were issues by the School Board to complete streets and homes in rings around the neighborhood. Despite the LaSalle expressway obstructed Love Canal’s connection to the Niagara River, the construction of several commercial and cultural hubs in the neighborhood – malls and churches – presented a hopeful future to businessmen, developers, politicians, and families alike.
In retrospect, Love Canal might have had a minority community or consisted of low-income residents; maybe the need to alleviate liability from the toxic dumping grounds was reason enough for Hooker to sell to the School Board, and the community that resided there were victims of bad luck. However, a report in 1976 stated that Love Canal was “one of the most populous census tracts in the city, with a median income of $10,628, higher than that of Niagara Falls as a whole”. There were few retired seniors in Love Canal – majority of the residents were young families with at the most 2 small children. The vacancy rate in Love Canal was one of the lowest, less than 3%. It was quoted that Love Canal was ranked “fourth best in Niagara Falls in terms of social well-being”. Even when taking into consideration that race was not a factor in this scenario – Love Canal residents were predominantly white, save for the Griffin Manor Federal Housing project adjacent to it – there was no understanding as to why gross neglect by both state and market were the case at Love Canal.
Looking at the accused party – Hooker Chemical Corporation – might help discern the choice of Love Canal as their toxic dumping grounds. Hooker Chemical Corporation was founded by Elon Huntington Hooker in 1903, a former engineer from Rochester who moved to Love Canal soon after Love left the Niagara Falls region after his vision of Model City failed. Coming from families that descended from Puritans and architects of the American Railroad, he believed he was descended from visionaries and would grow into an industry titan himself. Hooker’s move to Niagara Falls was due to the abundance of salt mines and the low cost of electricity from the Niagara Falls Power Project, a series of hydroelectric power plants generated by the falls. Hooker envisioned that hydroelectricity would help in the efficient production of several useful chemical compounds such as chlorine, hydrogen, and caustic soda – compounds used for the production of other compounds. By harnessing the power of the falls, Hooker foresaw the start of a chemical revolution at Niagara Falls.
Hooker Chemical may have a bad reputation due to the events at Love Canal, but Hooker seemed to believe that his work and innovation was for the public good. Similar to Love, he claimed that technology should be harnessed to solve the already rising environmental problems around the country, such as industrial pollution, contaminated water, and overcrowded urban tenements. In the early stages of his career, Hooker focused on supporting technologies that aimed to curb environmental degradation, such as the electrostatic precipitator that captured industrial smoke and vapors through ionization, a device that made Hooker Chemical push for smoke abatements. By becoming the nation’s leading producer in chlorinated lime, they became leaders in water disinfection as well. With these environmental restorative measures heavily underway, Hooker believed that Niagara Falls – a hallowed ground for naturalists and a reusable resource for industrialists – would be the ideal location for a middle ground; a thought that greatly inspired Hooker’s innovative spirit.
Hooker’s unfortunate passing by a heart attack seemed to have changed the personality of his company. Soon after his death, Hooker Chemical grew aggressively and became a global leader in several non-humanistic arrays of chemicals, explosives, and plastics. In the late 1940s, Hooker Chemical began to be involved in The Manhattan Project and continued to be a key player in the chemical realm of the Cold War. The company’s rapid growth quickly overwhelmed the on-site disposal capacity, for which they sought “inground disposal” means beyond their facility. It was unfortunately Love Canal – a mere 3 miles away – that became the first off-site disposal area where almost 22,000 tons of chemical sludge was discarded and buried into the landscape in an apparently “secure clay vault”. Company officials found the site ideal: an already excavated canal with water that could be drained and lined with a bed of clay, and only a dozen homes. Dumping barrels of toxic waste occurred on a weekly basis, with several thousand barrels (some corroded, some broken) being transported each time. It was only when the School Board showed interest in purchasing the land, did Hooker Chemical just cover up their abhorrent mistake with dirt, making it seem that no mistakes had occurred on the site. Hooker’s passing caused the company to backpedal (as seen in Fig. 7), overlooking the hazards they were directly contributing to, “as long as the property was owned or leased by the party doing the dumping”.
It seems that Hooker Chemical was not only to blame for what happened at Love Canal. The company warned Niagara Falls School Board multiple times during the Board’s purchasing process, reasoning that “chemical wastes being dumped in Love Canal make the area unsuitable for development” and that “it is a poor choice to build private homes in Love Canal”. Hooker’s corporate lawyers also asserted that “residue buried at Love Canal can have a serious effect on building and foundations” and “it would be possible that personal injuries can result from contact with hazardous materials”. In fact, when the City inquired for the purchase of another dumping ground, Hooker Chemical rejected their offer and asserted that such land should not be redeployed for the public. Hooker officials ceded that they “could not prevent the Board from selling the land or doing anything they wanted with it”.
While Hooker Chemical should have been cautious when disposing their wastes, it is also clear that the Niagara Falls School Board turned a deaf ear to the constant warnings of building on and around Love Canal. Why then has the School Board not been scrutinized for this thoughtless decision of developing on an industrial landfill? This series of events caused incessant torture for Love Canal’s residents, but also incited impactful grassroots movements focused on the environment, public health, and awareness. From a grassroots standpoint, the industrial giant is always to blame. However, by only looking at the fine print, do we see that there are always many hands involved in environmental ruin. It goes to show that everyone is to blame in some part for the devastation we are causing to our planet, and it is only together as a species that we can make a large enough impact to slow down and eventually end the torture.
Fig. 01: Extents of the buried canal under the built Love Canal neighborhood. (Fletcher 320)
Fig. 02: Endless rows of barrels containing toxic waste uncovered at Love Canal. (Bryson)
Fig. 3: A timeline of the events and level of involvement on the Love Canal Site by the parties involved.
Fig. 4: Diagrammatic sections of the canal at various stages of its life, from 1910 (when it was used as a swimming and skating venue), 1942 (when it was being used as a dumping ground by Hooker Chemical), 1953 (when it was closed for development by the Niagara Falls School Board), and 1970 (when the complaints of Love Canal residents began).
Fig. 5: Complaints from various Love Canal residents involved a strange black odorous liquid coming out of the floors of their basements (Roth).
Fig. 6: Love Canal after homes were built (left) and before environmental restoration (right).
Fig. 7: Some of the advertisements that Hooker Chemical published after the protests at Love Canal commenced focused on denying any instances of waste mismanagement, indicating the change in behavior from when Elon Hooker was at the helm (Roth).
Berton, Pierre. Niagara: a history of the falls. McClelland & Stewart Inc. 1994. ISBN 0771012179.
Blum, Elizabeth D. Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism. Lawrence: University Press Of Kansas, 2011.
Bryson, Michael. “Love Canal: A Still Unfolding Legacy of a Toxic Waste Community Disaster”. Roosevelt University. December 1, 2013. Accessed November 06, 2018.https://blogs.roosevelt.edu/mbryson/2013/12/01/love-canal-a-still-unfolding-legacy-of-a-toxic-waste-community-disaster/.
Colten, Craig E., and Peter N. Skinner. The Road to Love Canal: Managing Industrial Waste before EPA. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
Cowie, Jefferson, Joseph Heathcott, and Barry Bluestone. Beyond the Ruins: The Meanings of Deindustrialization. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2003.
Curtin, John Thomas. “United States v. Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp., 850 F. Supp. 993 (W.D.N.Y. 1994).” Justia Law. March 17, 1994. Accessed November 04, 2018. https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/850/993/2132540/.
DePalma, Anthony. “A Toxic Waste Capital Looks to Spread It Around; Upstate Dump Is the Last in the Northeast.” The New York Times. March 10, 2004. Accessed November 03, 2018. https://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/10/nyregion/toxic-waste-capital-looks-spread-it-around-upstate-dump-last-northeast.html.
Dickson, David (1982). “United States: Lessons of Love Canal Prompt Clean up”. AMBIO. Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. 11 (1): 46–50. JSTOR 4312752.
Fletcher, Thomas. Neighborhood Change at Love Canal: Contamination,evacuation and Resettlement. Bishop’s University. Elsevier Science. March 28, 2002. Accessed December 10, 2018. https://www.ubishops.ca/.
Gibbs, Lois. “Citizen Activism for Environmental Health: The Growth of a Powerful New Grassroots Health Movement.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 584, no. 1 (November 1, 2002): 97-109. Accessed September 13, 2018. doi:10.1177/000271620258400107. – Sage Journals Online
Gibbs, Lois Marie. Love Canal: And the Birth of the Environmental Health Movement. Washington: Island Press, 2011.
Greenberg, Jason. “Neither Model Nor a City.” Offbeat and Ominous. March 01, 2017. Accessed December 09, 2018. http://www.offbeatominous.com/2017/03/neither-model-nor-city.html.
Levine, Adeline Gordon (1982). Love Canal: Science, Politics and People. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company. ISBN 978-0-669-05411-8.
Newman, Richard S. Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
RC Polk Survey, “Profile of a City in Distress”, in Emergency Needs Grant Application, 1980, Love Canal Area Revitalization Records, University Archives, SUNY-Buffalo, MS 74, Box 4, Folder 11, 14-18, 19-25.
Roth, Cassia. “For the Love of Data: Science, Protest, and Power at Love Canal.” Nursing Clio. May 11, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2018. https://nursingclio.org/2017/05/11/for-the-love-of-data-science-protest-and-power-at-love-canal/.
Thompson, Megan, Mori Rothman, and Michael D. Regan. “Residents Say Love Canal Chemicals Continue to Make Them Sick.” PBS. August 05, 2018. Accessed November 01, 2018. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/residents-say-love-canal-chemicals-continue-to-make-them-sick.
Zuesse, Eric (February 1981). “Love Canal: The Truth Seeps Out”. Reason Magazine. Retrieved 2017-10-31.