Water Pollution

Love Canal, New York

Introduction: History of the Area

caption Aerial view of Love Canal, New York.

Love Canal (43° 4'50.00"N, 78°57'7.00"W) is a neighborhood located in the city of Niagara Falls in upstate New York. Named for William T. Love, the original developer of the site, Love Canal began with a utopian vision and ended as one of the nation's most infamous environmental disasters. In the 1890’s, William T. Love began excavating a canal on the 70-acre site. His plan was to develop the canal and harness energy with a hydroelectric power plant. He hoped that the project would encourage development of the area.

Love’s vision, however, would never be fulfilled. Once it was realized that the project would not be completed, Love sold the land to Hooker Chemicals and Plastics (now Occidental Chemical Corporation). In 1942 Hooker Chemicals and Plastics began using the excavated area as a landfill for chemical wastes. Over a period of 10 years, over 21,000 tons of toxic wastes were disposed at the site. This stockpile of toxins – including halogenated organics, pesticides, chlorobenzenes and dioxin, covering nearly 16 acres – would eventually be capped and sold to the Niagara Falls Board of Education (NFBE) in 1953.

Discovery of the Toxins

Shortly after this transfer of ownership, the NFBE began development in Love Canal. Approximately 200 residencies and an elementary school were built in the area directly adjacent to the landfill. In the 1960’s, residents began complaining of strange odors in their neighborhoods. These complaints escalated in the 1970’s when the toxins from the landfill began leaching into surface- and groundwater bringing the substances into basements and backyards. A number of the leached chemicals were suspected carcinogens. It was later determined that the toxic wastes had contaminated much of the area surrounding the landfill and had also runoff into the sewer system and ultimately to surrounding creeks and the Niagara River, a source of drinking water for nearly 77,000 people.

Residents suffered immediate effects such as lesions and burns as well as chronic effects such as leukemia and birth defects. After the situation at Love Canal was publicized, action was taken at both the local and national level, including the appropriation of emergency funds to aid the Love Canal residents.

Evacuation of the Area

These discoveries, along with the disclosure that their homes had been built near a toxic landfill, outraged residents. Residents complained of medical ailments, and although no conclusive evidence had yet been found to support a cause-and-effect relationship between the exposure and illness, it was clear that further investigation was warranted. On August 2, 1978, the New York State Commissioner of Health declared a State of Emergency in Love Canal and ordered the closing of the 99th Street School which was located near the center of the old chemical landfill. He also recommended that all pregnant women and families with children under the age of two evacuate the area immediately surrounding the landfill.

Less than one week later on August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a State of Emergency in Love Canal and 239 families living within two rows of the landfill were permanently relocated. Yet problems persisted and families continued to complain of health problems. As a result, 300 additional families were relocated from Love Canal. Following the first State of Emergency declaration in 1978, extensive blood tests were conducted on the remaining families in Love Canal. These tests showed chromosome damage which suggested possible increased incidence of cancer, reproductive disorders, and other genetic disorders. The results of the health assessments led President Carter to declare a second State of Emergency on October 1, 1980. The federal government provided funds for the relocation of all remaining Love Canal residents that chose to leave; nearly 900 additional families left their homes in Love Canal. These efforts were partially organized by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) which was put in charge of purchasing the abandoned homes and arranging the relocation of the displaced families.

In 1980, a 350-acre area surrounding the landfill was identified as an Emergency Declaration Area. Additionally, 10,000 and 70,000 people lived within one and three miles of Love Canal respectively. The contamination of the drinking water supply, which affected the majority of this surrounding population, significantly widened the scope of the impact.

Legislative Reaction to the Disaster

The mounting disaster and the need for a concerted and well-coordinated clean-up effort exposed the need for a better way to manage environmental accidents. Partially because of the incident at Love Canal, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was enacted on December 11, 1980 as a federal law. CERCLA, commonly known as Superfund, was established to tax chemical and petroleum industries in order to create a fund to remediate future sites of uncontrolled hazardous wastes, such as that of Love Canal. Superfund is organized through a National Priorities List (NPL) which catalogues contaminated sites across the United States that are in need of further investigation or clean-up. Only once it has been determined that the location is no longer a hazard to human or environmental health can a site be removed from the NPL.

On September 30, 2004, over two decades since the identification of the site as an Emergency Declaration Area and the forced evacuation of over 1,000 families, Love Canal was removed from Superfund’s NPL. Although the site was declared safe for human habitation and has since been redeveloped, Love Canal will continue to be monitored on an annual basis.

Further Reading

Glossary

Citation

Angelo, L. (2008). Love Canal, New York. Retrieved from http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/154300

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