Love Canal’s lesson: you’re on your own

C&I Issue 2, 2017

Love Canal’s lesson: you’re on your own


Eric Johnson

Most Americans assume the government will be there to help, when they need help.’ In 1979, the United States Senate heard this testimony of Anne Hillis, a self-described ‘wife and mother’ who lived with her family in a subdivision of Niagara Falls, New York (state), called Love Canal.

The canal – actually a ditch about 5m deep, a remnant of a 19th-century industrial boondoggle – was used in the 1940s-50s to dispose of hazardous waste from chemicals production. Niagara Falls’ local government, despite repeated warnings from the chemicals’ manufacturer, soon thereafter decided to build a residential neighbourhood, right on top of the hazardous wastes.

The manufacturer had buried and sealed the wastes within a clay liner, compliant with modern standards. If left alone, they should not have caused damage. But home and school construction, including well-drilling, punctured the seal. The haz-waste soon began to poison the neighbourhood. Its gruesome result was disease and death to many residents. As Anne Hillis put it, with only some exaggeration: ‘We are all doomed at Love Canal.’

It took some time for government at any level to believe this prognosis. When local, state and federal officials finally began to believe, they started to ‘pass the buck’, as Americans say. They handed blame for the mess, and responsibility for its resolution, around like a hot potato. Surely the local government could never have footed the relocation and clean-up bill. Probably the state – and surely the federal government could have, but instead the feds tried to pass the buck to the chemicals’ manufacturer – that’ll be Hooker Chemical, acquired in 1968 by Occidental Chemical.

And so the governments – at all levels – aided and abetted the aberrant portrayal of Hooker/Oxy as a heartless, technocratic company that would accept the poisoning of locals as an external cost.

Here emerged the popular stereotype of chemical killers, since etched into celluloid by Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, Fletch Lives and many more.

Environmental activists pounced on this caricature, and, as Richard Newman’s book notes, profited from it in publicity and contributions.

The Feds played along, painting themselves as white knights, riding in to save the day from evil Oxy. Love Canal residents and their activist leaders, such as Hillis and her better-known colleague Lois Gibbs, profited less. They were not so interested in assigning blame as in finding and implementing a solution, which was less media-sexy and far more costly. Their wrath aimed more at government(s) than at Oxy.

Newman’s book lays this out in welldocumented detail. To researchers of Love Canal and other toxic-waste exposures such as Times Beach and ‘Cancer Alley’, his text will be useful.

Probably the book’s main novelty is Newman’s challenge to the generally-held view that Hooker sealed the hazardous wastes under a 1m deep clay layer. He hints that the cap might have covered the wastes partially – or even not at all.

Unfortunately, it’s only a hint, hearsay really. He or somebody should clarify this critical point. For victims, Newman sounds a chilling reminder of their powerlessness. As Hillis went on to say to the Senate: ‘May God help us and our country... We need help desperately.’

It was only after years of activism that some desperate victims of Love Canal were helped. As in so many toxic waste exposures, many others lost homes, health and even lives. They assumed government help, but they didn’t get i.t


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