Canal: the Start of a Movement
By Lois Marie Gibbs
Marie Gibbs was the key leader of Love Canal residents in
their fight to be relocated away from a toxic dump containing
over 20,000 tons of chemicals. She is the Executive Director
of the Center for Health,
Environment and Justice, which she founded in 1981 following
the Love Canal struggle. CHEJ is a national organization
that assists local people to become empowered to protect
their communities from environmental threats. The following
text was written by Lois Marie Gibbs and CHEJ in 1983 and
updated in 1997 and 2002.
The history of
Love Canal began in
1892 when William T. Love proposed
connecting the upper and lower Niagara
River by digging a canal six to seven miles
long. By doing this, Love hoped to harness
the water of the upper Niagara River into a
navigable channel, which would create a
man-made waterfall with a 280-foot drop
into the lower Niagara River, providing
country fell into an economic depression and financial backing
for the project slipped away. Love then abandoned the project,
leaving behind a partially dug section of the canal, sixty
feet wide and three thousand feet long. In 1920, the land
was sold at public auction and became a municipal and chemical
disposal site until 1953. The principal company that dumped
wastes in the canal was Hooker Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary
of Occidental Petroleum. The City of Niagara and the United
States Army used the site as well, with the city dumping
garbage and the Army possibly dumping parts of the Manhattan
Project and other chemical warfare material.
In 1953, after
filling the canal and covering it with dirt, Hooker sold
the land to the Board of Education for one dollar. Hooker
included in the deed transfer a "warning" of the
chemical wastes buried on the property and a disclaimer
absolving Hooker of any future liability.
they didn't understand the potential risks associated with
Hooker's chemical wastes, the Board of Education began in
1954 to construct an elementary school on the canal property.
The 99th Street School was completed by 1955, opening its
doors to about 400 students each year.
around the old canal also began in the 1950's. However,
homeowners were never given any warning or information that
would indicate that the property was located near a chemical
waste dump. Most families who moved into the area were unaware
of the old landfill and its poisons. The canal looked very
innocent, like any field anywhere. It certainly did not
appear to be a chemical dump with 20,000 tons of toxic wastes
buried beneath it.
In 1978, there
were approximately 800 private single-family homes and 240
low-income apartments built around the canal. The elementary
school was located near the center of the landfill. The
Niagara River, to the south and a creek to the north of
the landfill formed natural boundaries for the area affected
by the migrating chemicals.
From the late
1950's through the 1970's, people repeatedly complained
of odors and substances surfacing near or in their yards
and on the school playground. The city, responding to these
complaints, visited the area and covered the "substances"
with dirt or clay.
After years of
complaints, the city and county hired a consultant to investigate.
In 1976, the Calspan Corporation completed a study of the
canal area and found toxic chemical residues in the air
and sump pumps of a high percentage of homes at the southern
end of the canal. They also found drums just beneath or
on the surface, and high levels of PCB's in the storm sewer
system. Calspan recommended that the canal be covered with
clay, home sump pumps be sealed off and a tile drainage
system be installed to control the migration of wastes.
However, nothing was done by the city with the exception
of placing window fans in a few homes found to contain high
levels of chemical residues.
In March of 1978,
the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) began collecting
air and soil tests in basements and conducting a health
study of the 239 families that immediately encircled the
canal. The Health Department found an increase in reproductive
problems among women and high levels of chemical contaminants
in soil and air.
Canal Homeowners Association
Love Canal Homeowners
Association (LCHA) was established in August of 1978 to
give the community a voice in the decisions made during
the Love Canal environmental crisis. LCHA membership consisted
of approximately 500 families living within a 10-block area
surrounding the Love Canal landfill. The community consisted
of blue-collar workers with an average annual income of
$10,000-$25,000. The majority of people worked in local
industries, which were largely chemical.
The Love Canal
Homeowners Association grew out of another group established
in June 1978, the Love Canal Parents Movement. The Parents
Movement was started by Lois Gibbs, who lived in the neighborhood
and whose children attended the 99th Street School. Ms.
Gibbs, unaware of the dump, was alerted first by newspaper
articles describing the landfill, its wastes, and proximity
to the 99th Street School. Having a small sickly child attending
the school, Gibbs became very concerned about the danger
the landfill posed to the school. She also realized that
the school being built so close to the landfill might have
something to do with her son's poor health.
Gibbs first approached
the School Board armed with notes from two physicians recommending
the transfer of her child to another public school. But
the Board refused to transfer her child stating that if
it was unsafe for her son, then it would be unsafe for all
children and they were not going to close the school because
of one concerned mother with a sickly child. Gibbs was angered
and began talking with other parents in the neighborhood
to see if they were having problems with their children's
health. After speaking with hundreds of people, she realized
that the entire community was affected.
On August 2,
1978, the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) issued
a health order. The health order recommended that the 99th
Street School be closed (a victory), that pregnant women
and children under the age of two be evacuated, that residents
not eat out of their home gardens and that they spend limited
time in their basements. A few days later, the state agreed
to purchase all 239 homes in the first two rings of homes
closest to the canal.
actions served to bring the residents together to form a
strong united citizens' organization, and served as the
stepping-stone to the establishment of the Love Canal Homeowners
Association. Within a week of the health order, the residents
held a public meeting, elected officers and set goals for
the newly formed organization. All goals set at that time
were ultimately reached.
At the time of
the first evacuation order in August of 1978, the state
established the Love Canal Interagency Task Force to coordinate
the many activities undertaken at the canal. The task force
had three major responsibilities: the relocation of evacuated
families, the continuation of health and environmental studies
and the construction of a drainage system to prevent further
migration of toxic chemicals. [Also, please see Key
Dates and Events at Love Canal.]
Because of the
close proximity to the Niagara River, the water table in
the canal would rise and fall substantially. As this occurred,
water would mix with chemicals in the landfill and move
out into the community as "leachate." As the water
table rose, so did the leachate, which moved out through
the topsoil to homes built nearby. There was also an old
streambed that crossed the canal and underground sand layers
that carried this overflow into the basements of adjacent
homes and throughout the community.
The cleanup plan
consists of a tile drain collection system designed to "contain"
the waste and prevent any outward migration of chemical
leachate. A graded trench system was dug around the canal
to intercept migrating leachate and create a barrier drain
system. The leachate collected from the drain system was
pumped to an on-site treatment plant that uses a series
of filters, most importantly, activated charcoal, to remove
chemicals from the waste stream. The remaining "clean"
water is then flushed down the sanitary sewer system. Chemicals
such as mercury and other heavy metals are not removed by
this treatment and find their way into the Niagara River.
A clay cap was placed over the canal as a cover to minimize
rainwater entering the canal surface, to prevent chemicals
from vaporizing into the air and to prevent direct contact
with contaminated soil. The 20,000 tons of wastes are still
buried in the center of this community.
Once the state
had evacuated 239 families and began the cleanup, they arbitrarily
defined the affected area and erected a 10-foot fence around
the evacuated area. This decision was arbitrary because
at the time nobody knew how far the chemicals had gone or
how many people were affected. At this same time, the state
began to make public statements that there was no evidence
of abnormal health problems outside the fenced area. Consequently,
the families in the outer community became angry and began
to look at the fence as though it fenced them in. The residents
knew there were health problems outside the first 239 homes
because of a health survey that LCHA had conducted.
quickly began to express their anger and concerns. Even
quiet and retiring residents suddenly found themselves raising
their voices in public protest. The protests included mothers
and fathers with their babies and old people who were ready
for retirement. They marched into the streets on Mother's
Day, carried symbolic coffins to the state capitol, and
held prayer vigils. The residents also picketed at the canal
every day for weeks in the dead of winter, hoping someone
would hear them and someone would help. Their children were
sick, their homes were worthless and they were innocent
Because of the
pressure created by the protests and the persistence of
the community, the state was forced to address the community's
concerns. They gave the residents "concessions"
such as an extensive safety plan, a scientist-consultant
of their choosing whose salary was paid by the state, and
a $200,000 Human Services Fund to pay some of the residents'
medical expenses. But, residents did not want concessions.
They wanted and needed to be evacuated as the first 239
With the help
of a dedicated volunteer scientist, LCHA began to interview
families. Once the data was collected, they plotted the
results on a map and immediately noticed a clustering of
diseases in certain areas of the neighborhood. Elderly residents
suggested that the clusters seemed to follow the path of
old streambeds that had crossed the canal many years ago.
LCHA looked at old aerial photographs, geological survey
maps and personal photographs that residents brought forth.
One of these photographs showed an old streambed, which
appeared to be 10-feet deep and more than 20-feet wide.
These streambeds crossed the canal carrying water to and
from the Niagara River. When the area was developed, the
streambeds were filled with dirt and building rubble through
which water flowed easily. Even though there was no surface
evidence of these streambeds, they provided an easy pathway
for chemicals to flow out of the canal.
who helped the residents with their health study was Dr.
Beverly Paigen, a cancer research scientist at Roswell Memorial
Institute in Buffalo, New York. The data was collected by
interviewing each family using a questionnaire. More than
75% of the homes outside the fenced area were included in
the study. The 239 families who lived closest to the canal
were not included because they were already evacuated. Thus,
the results were an underestimate of the total health damages
in the community. The study was completed in February 1979.
The study found
increases in miscarriages, still births, crib deaths, nervous
breakdowns, hyperactivity, epilepsy, and urinary tract disorders.
Each of these diseases was plotted on a map using dots to
re- present each disease. Many of the dots clustered around
the old streambeds or "historically wet" areas.
When the observed
miscarriages were compared to the number of miscarriages
that occurred in the same women before they moved to the
Love Canal, miscarriages were found to have increased 300%.
Most of these miscarriages occurred in women who lived in
the historically wet areas.
the number of birth defects in historically wet areas with
homes outside these areas, there were almost three times
as many birth defects. Importantly, no birth defects were
found in homes located on the streambed that did not cross
the canal. The study also showed that during the 5-year
period from 1974 to 1978, 56% of the children in the Love
Canal neighborhood were born with a birth defect (9 birth
defects among 16 children born) that included three ears,
double row of teeth, and mental retardation.
LCHA also examined
the pregnancies that occurred between January 1979 and February
1980, the construction period. This study found that out
of 22 pregnancies occurring among Love Canal women, only
four normal babies were born. The rest of the pregnancies
ended in a miscarriage, stillbirth or a birth-defected child.
Many of the chemicals
in Love Canal are also known to affect the kidneys and the
urinary system. The study showed an increase of almost 300%
in urinary tract disorders. LCHA found a great number of
the canal children to have urinary tract disorders.
these findings to the state health authorities who quickly
dismissed the study calling it "useless housewife data,"
saying residents' illnesses were all in their heads, the
birth defects were genetic, and the urinary disease the
result of sexual activity (in a five-year-old boy??).
So, the community
went back to the streets and explained their problems to
the public in order to gain the public support needed. Thousands
of people soon began to write letters and send telegrams
to the Governor, to legislators and to the President of
our country. Residents created so much pressure and public
outcry that the health authorities were forced to investigate
On February 8,
1979, after the health department looked at the reproductive
problems in the outer community, they confirmed the homeowners'
findings and issued a second evacuation order for pregnant
women and children under the age of two. This evacuation
was a step in the right direction, but it was still not
enough. It was not until October of 1980 that a total evacuation
of the community was ordered by President Carter. Everyone
who lived at the Love Canal had the option of moving away,
with the government purchasing their homes at fair market
It is unfortunate
that everything done at Love Canal, from the health studies
to evacuation, was done for political reasons. None of the
decisions were based on scientific evidence. LCHA truly
believes that if it had not been for the large, strong citizen
organization, families would still be living at Love Canal
with the health authorities saying there were no health
For these same
reasons, in September 1988, the Love Canal was declared
"habitable," not to be confused with "safe."
The 239 homes closest to the canal have been demolished
and the remaining homes may be sold to new families. The
homes that will be re-inhabited are still contaminated,
still unsafe. There have been no cleanup measures taken
around the homes, which were found to have several toxic
chemicals in and around them. Only the creek and sewer systems
In the case of
Love Canal, history will most likely repeat itself. The
deeds will contain a clause stating that if the new owners
become sick, harmed, or die due to the Love Canal wastes,
the city, state or federal governments will not be responsible.
This clause is similar to the "Hooker Clause"
in the earlier land transfer in 1950.
it is important to add that canal families did not know
that they were being exposed to poisonous chemicals, nor
were they aware that chemical wastes were being dumped in
our rivers, soil, and air. Love Canal awoke a community
to the unpleasantness and unfortunate realization of how
toxic wastes affect out lives, and destroy our environment.
Residents at Love Canal always believed that the government
would automatically protect them. They were wrong; in some
cases dead wrong!
Since Love Canal,
Ms. Gibbs has founded the Center for Health, Environment
and Justice (CHEJ) (formerly the Citizens Clearinghouse
for Hazardous Waste - CCHW) which provides direct assistance
to citizens faced with environmental problems. She started
CHEJ because she was contacted by hundreds of people seeking
help with their hazardous waste problems. As Director, she
has traveled extensively across the country working with
citizens and she quickly found that, although Love Canal
is the most famous, it is not the only serious problem.
In fact, chemical wastes and emissions continue to this
day, to threaten thousands of communities across the country!
at Love Canal that even low levels of chemical exposure
have an effect on the human body, and that the government
will protect you from this only when you force them to.
If you think you're safe, think again. We can count only
on ourselves to safeguard our families' health through vigilance,
knowledge and collective action.
In the years following the community health study in which
Dr. Beverly Paigen was involved, Dr. Paigen and other scientists
conducted numerous other studies on the health impacts of
living near the Love Canal toxic dump. Please see our bibliographies
in Health Studies and pictures from Lois Gibbs' Love Canal 25th anniversary press conference and tour. This article looks back at Love Canal 30 years after the disaster first came to light.
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