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Environmental disaster – The continuing legacy of Love Canal

March 2019

Once envisioned as the model of what a planned community could be, the name Love Canal has become synonyms with environmental disaster.  Although the community, to be called Model City by its founder William T. Love, never came to fruition under his guidance or as he envisioned, what did emerge was a residential community that became the centre of an infamous environmental disaster that would be exposed in the 1970s.

When William T. Love drew up his plans for his ambitious urban paradise in 1890, he envisioned “The most beautiful [park] in the world” surrounded by housing for over 1 Million residents.  A canal was to be dug leading from the Niagara River and a hydroelectric plant would provide power to the community, giving it smog-free skies.

By 1894, the project was well underway, with some streets and housing built.  However, after less than a mile of the canal had been dug, an economic downturn and a Congressional law prohibiting removal of water from the Niagara River led to investors backing away from the project.

The end of Love’s dream finally came to an end 13 years later, a victim of another economic downturn, the “Panic of 1907,” and the discovery by Nikola Tesla of how to economically transmit electricity over long distances by using alternating current, making it unnecessary for industry to locate near a power source.

The abandoned stub of a canal eventually became a local swimming hole and skating pond. 

In the 1920s, the canal became the municipal dump for the City of Niagara Falls but it wasn’t until the dump was purchased by Hooker Chemical in 1942 that the stage was set for the environmental disaster to follow.

Until Hooker Chemical, now Occidental Chemical, shut down the site in 1953, 21,800 short tons of industrial hazardous waste from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and solvents for rubber and synthetic resins were buried in the former canal.

The property was sold to the Niagara Falls City School District, who built two schools on the former dump.  By 1957, construction was underway for the 800 private houses and 240 low-income apartments that surrounded the schools and the abandoned industrial waste dump was forgotten.

By 1977, the toxic stew that had been brewing below the surface had been seeping into yards, basements and groundwater after the water table rose substantially during the spring melt that followed the “Blizzard of ’77”, a brutal winter storm that hit western New York and Southern Ontario, with snowfall as high as 100 inches, drifts of 30 to 40 feet and 23 total storm-related deaths in western New York alone.

The contamination caused by the leaching chemicals caused serious health problems for the residents of Love Canal, including miscarriages, urinary, kidney and mental disabilities in children.

A disaster declaration by President Jimmy Carter in 1978 led to the evacuation of families from the neighborhood and the demolition of their homes.  The former industrial waste dump was closed off with fencing and a monitoring and containment system was installed to stop any further environmental harm.

Streets to the north and west of Love Canal were subjected to a $230 million cleanup that involved capping the canal with clay, a plastic liner and topsoil.

The construction of the nearby LaSalle Expressway is thought to have indirectly contributed to the environmental disaster when it was built along the southern edge of Love Canal.  The 2.5 mile expressway served as a barrier, preventing the toxic waste from draining into the Niagara River.

In the end, more than 800 families were relocated and a $15 million fund was used to reimburse them for the loss of their homes.  Houses on both sides of the canal were demolished, leaving only the crumbling streets, sidewalks and fire hydrants behind.  A handful of residents on the east side elected to stay, leaving the occasional home standing among the overgrown lots of their former neighbours.

A Federal District Court Judge ruled in 1994 that Hooker/Occidental Chemical were negligent in the handing of the waste and the land sale to the school board.  A $129 million fine was leveled against the company by the EPA and a small $3.5 million fund was set aside for a health study. 

A lawsuit filed by the residents was also settled.

The entire process of sealing and remediating the contaminated land took 21 years and $400 million.  Monitoring of the area continues to this day.

David Axelrod, then the New York State Department of Health Commissioner, said of Love Canal that it was a “…national symbol of a failure to exercise a sense of concern for future generations.”

A positive outcome of the Love Canal disaster was the establishment of the Superfund program, in which government dollars are used to clean up toxic sites across the U.S.

Sources:  https://buffalonews.com/2018/08/04/a-history-of-the-love-canal-disaster-1893-to-1998/, https://nypost.com/2013/11/02/love-canal-still-oozing-poison-35-years-later/, https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/love-canal-tragedy.html,https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blizzard_of_%2777, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/05/nyregion/after-10-years-the-trauma-of-love-canal-continues.html, https://publicintegrity.org/environment/from-homemaker-to-hell-raiser-in-love-canal/

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/environmental-disaster-the-continuing-legacy-of-love-canal/

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