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Love Canal: A Dollar And A Nightmare

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Love Canal: A Dollar and a Nightmare

By

Frank Tedesco

Dr. Breslow

Intro to Historical Study

HIS 3150

November 27, 2007

The Love Canal disaster is described as one of the most disturbing environmental events of the twentieth century. A large chemical manufacturing company, Hooker Chemical and Plastics, Co. is accused of burying chemical waste under an elementary school which eventually leaches into the surrounding neighborhood. Numerous health problems of the residents are believed to be connected to the spread of toxic substances by groundwater. Is Love Canal the result of corporate greed and heartlessness? Could this entire crisis been attributed to a real estate transaction for one U.S. dollar? The actual explanation is far more complex.

At the turn of the twentieth century, entrepreneur William Love envisions building a huge hydroelectric facility in Niagara Falls, N.Y. During this time, Thomas Edison has just harnessed the forces of electricity by using direct current. This process is un-economical for transmitting electricity over long distances. Love plans his project to provide electric power to industry locally. He has dreams of creating a booming city around this process. Love proceeds to excavate a canal connecting the Upper Niagara River to the Lower Niagara River in order to wield water to create electric power. With only a sixteen acre section complete, Love is literally stopped in his tracks and bankrupt by a combination of economic recession in 1894, and Nikola Tesla's pioneering system of alternating current, which now allows electricity to be sent over long distances.

In 1920, the canal property owned by the City of Niagara Falls is sold at public auction to Hooker Chemical Corporation. The site is used as a municipal disposal site until 1942. Hooker then starts filling a 3,200 ft. section of the canal with chemical waste. During this period, several other chemical companies and The City of Niagara Falls also use the site for disposal of unknown substances. Hooker claims to have chosen this site for hazardous waste due to the impermeable clay in the subsoil and the sparse population surrounding the area. The company reports to have buried approximately 21,800 tons of chemical waste in the canal.

Hooker Chemical sells the land to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for one dollar. In the closing paragraph of the deed for sale, the company clarifies it has buried chemical waste on the property and shifts all liability to the school board or any future owners of the property. The school board desired the property due to a post World War II baby boom and the need for additional schools in the area. Land prices were also low in the areas surrounding the canal site, and the board was short on finances.

During the summer of 1955, the school board begins construction of a new elementary school in the center of the canal area. Upon groundbreaking, the contractor reports contacting chemical waste which immediately halts construction. The school site is moved thirty feet east after the project architect recommends soil testing and relocation of the building. It is then revealed residents begin complaining two years earlier of noxious fumes and children being burned by chemicals. These incidents are called to Hooker's attention, and the company assists in cleanup efforts, but claims no legal obligation to perform these duties.

In November 1957, Hooker is successful in blocking a proposal from the City of Niagara Falls Building and Grounds Committee to sell Love Canal property to real estate developers. At the same time, city workmen are busy constructing a sewer system that punches the canal walls and its clay covering. Hooker is unaware of this activity taking place. This is the first time in history the canal walls are penetrated. Any loose and liquid chemicals buried could now escape freely.

At this point in time, the school board seeks every possible solution to transfer liability of this toxic property. The board decides to dedicate the north section of the canal to the City of Niagara Falls in June 1960. The deed on this transaction includes the same restrictive provisions stated in the original sale from Hooker to the board. In December 1961, the city puts up the southern section of the canal for public auction. The sole bid of twelve hundred dollars from a private investor is unanimously accepted by the school board. The board does include an indemnification clause to pass liability to the city in this transaction. The land is now sold off in parcels to various real estate developers who proceed and build homes on all areas bordering the canal.

In the years following residential development in the Love Canal area, many of the residents begin to experience various health problems. Lois Gibbs, a middle class homemaker living

in the Love Canal, discovers early in 1978 that her child along with many other children have developed strange health problems. At this point, there are chemicals oozing from the ground and also found in basements and backyards. She organizes the neighborhood and gains national attention when she persuades the New York State government to declare Love Canal and official emergency by late 1978.

President Jimmy Carter declares Love Canal a health emergency in October 1980. He signs legislation to evacuate all families from the Love Canal Area. He also signs into law, The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, or "The Superfund". This legislation provides financial support for the cleanup and revitalization of Love Canal.

The variety of health problems associated with the Love Canal area include: a high incidence of miscarriage; birth defects; chromosome breakage; central nervous system diseases including epilepsy, nervous breakdowns, suicide attempts and hyperactivity in children. Over two hundred chemical compounds are identified in and around the canal with twelve known carcinogens present, especially dioxin, one of the most deadly chemicals known to science. The health studies conducted by state and federal health agencies are inconclusive to link any health problems directly to the variety of chemicals seeped from Love Canal into residential neighborhoods. The reason is the "Theory of Chronic Toxicity", where small doses of chemicals come into human contact over a long period of time.

Hooker Chemical claims it handled the appropriate dump site very responsibly. In 1980, The American Institute of Chemical Engineers concluded that the

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