This is the shortened story of a small town known as the Love Canal, but it was not a town known for its love, but for arguably the largest chemical disaster in American - or even North American - history. It began with the dream of an individual named William T. Love, whose name would eventually decorate the town, though regrettably.
In the late 1800's, he had envisioned a town near Niagara Falls that would run off hydroelectricity. The power would be supplied by running a canal from the upper to lower Niagara Rivers. The plan eventually turned the canal into a proposed shipping route, complete with a "model city" surrounding the canal.
It didn't happen. The "Panic of 1893," which was the beginning of a recession in the latter years of the 19th century, caused financial backers to pull their money, which meant Mr. Love went broke quickly, spending the last of his own on the project. The effects of the recession were also combined with the fact that the brilliant inventor, Nikola Tesla, had just introduced a means of transporting electricity through an alternate current - the beginnings of our method of receiving power today.
The aftermath of Love's dream was nothing more than an abandoned trench a mile long, 50 feet wide and as much as 40 feet deep. Searching for a place to dump their chemical waste, the Hooker Chemical Company took possession of the land and began dumping their barreled waste into the canal, which had been lined with impermeable clay. Hooker had been given full permission to use the grounds in this way, which was common practice for chemical disposal in the early half of the century. The site was used from 1942 until 1952 and an estimated 21,000 tons of byproducts were eventually buried in the end.
In stepped the Niagara Falls Board of Education. Contrary to popular belief as the media portrayed the incident, it was the school board that should have been held negligible, but that's another page we don't have room for. In short, the school board, needing to build another school for lack of money, pressured the reluctant Hooker Chemical Company into selling them the property, which had long been planned as a new community. Whether trying to cover their own butts or out of genuine concern for the population, they transferred the deed for a single dollar, complete with written agreements that they would not be held accountable for any problems that should arise in the future. The contract even stated that the school board, and all other owners into the unforeseen future, be warned that the site had been built on toxic ground. In the end, none of it mattered and Hooker found themselves paying liabilities totaling in the millions, but that's getting ahead of ourselves.
The school was built on the property, its kindergarten playground sat directly above the earthen cover, and houses in the immediate vicinity had their lots backing onto the canal. Coincidentally, the 99th Street School, as it was called, had been planned by the same people who had constructed the 66th Street School, which just happened to have been built on an old chemical dump and was showing high levels of toxicity.
In 1978, after a large amount of rainfall, chemicals began leaching from the ground. The old 55-gallon drums began to protrude from the surface. Puddles of pure chemicals sent children running home with burns on their skin. The trees and plant life began to turn black, withering and dying as the forgotten elements returned. The EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) identified 82 different chemical compounds in the area, 11 of which were carcinogenic, with the biggest concern being polychlorinated dibenzodioxins, or dioxins for short.
From 1974-1978, there was a 56% rate of birth defects in the small town of Love Canal. Children were born showing signs of leukemia, deformities in physical structure, cleft palates, and even a 2nd row of teeth (Like an epileptic Chihuahua my parents had when I was young - 2 sets of teeth and he was named Fang).
On August 7, 1978, then-President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a federal disaster area - the first time the status had been given to any man-made disaster in American history. 239 families were evacuated in the immediate vicinity, followed by further evacuations in the years to come. As many as 800 families had their homes reimbursed. The mess was cleaned up with the chemicals being disposed of in the correct fashion - modern methods such as incineration, depending on the chemicals involved.
In 1995, the Hooker Chemical Company, whose name was now Occidental, was held accountable and shelled out $129 million dollars to the affected families. As mentioned earlier, the Niagara Falls Board of Education should have been liable, but again, we won't get into that here. It's just a side-note for history's sake, which I feel compelled to state.
In 1999, through the efforts of many combined groups such as the government, the EPA's Superfund, and the New York State Love Canal Revitalization Program, the area was again deemed habitable. The most toxic areas have been surrounded by a barbed wire fence and the original homes have been demolished. Despite opposition from former residents, the town was renamed Black Creek Village and new residents moved into the area.
On a final note, we should remember this isn't an isolated incident - just the first chemical disaster to gain large recognition. With the amount of dumpsites known and unknown from the early 20th century, it is commonplace to have areas of high toxicity, but let's just hope it's not in our own backyards where the next major disaster will resurface.
Google Earth satellite image of the Love Canal
Wikipedia - Love Canal
(Never 100% accurate but good for basics and better links.)
Found at http://www.reason.com/news/show/29319.html
Love Canal - The Truth Seeps Out
By Eric Zuesse
Published: February, 1981
The Society For Applied Anthropology
Case Study One - Love Canal Superfund Site
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
The Love Canal Tragedy - by Eckardt C. Beck
Published: January, 1979
New York Times
After 10 Years, the Trauma of Love Canal Continues
By Sam Howe Verhovek
Published: Friday, August 5, 1988
Ministry of the Environment (Ontario)
Dioxins and Furans
Information on Dioxins