Love Canal

Love Canal was not just a national, but a global story.  At one level, it was a catastrophe.  On the other hand, it gives us the opportunity to claim that the modern environmental movement, as we understand it globally, was really born here at Niagara Falls.

Mayor Paul Dyster, Niagara Falls, New York

Leaking barrels of hazardous waste discovered at Love Canal

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, the now unoccupied blocks between 97th and 102nd Streets in Love Canal were home to 950 families.  Tree-lined streets with affordable, suburban-style housing were within easy commuting distance to the city’s thriving chemicals factories.  It was a happy, hard-working and prosperous community.

Life in this idyll changed irrevocably in the 1970’s.  After heavy rains, basements in the neighbourhood were flooded with a foul-smelling black sludge.  Children playing in the school playground and in and around the nearby creeks suffered burns.  The bark began to peel off trees and gardens and vegetable plots withered and died.  Residents complained of serious medical problems, including epilepsy, liver disease, rectal bleeding, miscarriages and birth defects.

The source of these problems was traced back to a buried section of canal at the heart of the neighbourhood.  Thirty years after Hooker had started using the Love Canal site as a landfill, the rusting and leaking drums of waste had started to surface.

Local residents at Love Canal, led by housewife Lois Gibbs, staged a protracted grassroots campaign initially seeking evacuation and compensation.  Over time, their activities took on a wider significance as the Love Canal activists began to see their struggle as a fight for environmental justice.

In December 1980 Congress approved the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as Superfund.  It made substantial government funds available for the immediate clean-up of the most harmful hazardous waste sites across the United States, while also allowing for the government to identify and seek compensation from those responsible for the waste.  Love Canal was named as priority number one on the National Priority List (NPL) of sites identified as most urgently in need of attention.

In the same year, President Carter introduced legislation for the evacuation of the EDA (Emergency Declaration Area) and for the state-federal buyout of  the residents’ homes.  With the exception of a few residents who opted to stay, the houses in the EDA were demolished.

Love Canal aerial view
A view of Love Canal before the demolition of the neighbourhood

Love Canal Today

It is misleading to talk in terms of “cleaning up” a Superfund site.  The most common form of remediation is containment – sealing the affected area off and closing it with a clay cap.  Superfund sites are removed from the NPL list when the remedial system has been put in place and the only remaining activity is monitoring.  Today, Niagara Falls is home to 89 Superfund sites, of which two are active NPL sites, 14 are active non-NPL Superfund sites and 73 are archived sites.

Love Canal was removed from the NPL in September 2004.  The Superfund site is continually monitored using data from the 150 monitoring wells inside and outside the fenced off area.  The EPA reports that in 2017 approximately 5.6 million gallons of leachate¹ was collected, treated and discharged.

Areas to the west and north of the canal have been revitalized, with more than 260 formerly boarded up houses renovated at the expense of the federal government and sold.  In addition, a 10-building senior citizen apartment complex has been constructed.  The area to the north of Colvin Boulevard at the north end of the Love Canal rectangle has been renamed Black Creek Village.

The areas immediately adjacent to the Containment Area are zoned for commercial/light industrial use.

An empty block at Love Canal, April 2017 © Alan Gignoux

There was a strong incentive for the city of Niagara Falls to resettle the area.  On a practical level, officials were keen to boost their tax income with revenue from the newly purchased parcels of land.  Beyond this, they hoped that the revitalization of Love Canal could turn the nation’s most famous story of hazardous waste contamination into a narrative of successful remediation.

Environmentalists and former residents opposed the settlement, concerned that the problems of contamination might re-emerge and preferring for the site to be preserved as a memorial to the cost of environmental neglect.

For an in-depth study of the Love Canal disaster read Richard S.  Newman’s book Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present (see Bibliography).

¹Liquid that takes in substances from the material through which it passes, often making the liquid harmful or poisonous.

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