Friday, August 11, 2017

The Love Canal – A reminder that actions can have devastating consequences by Michelle Libby

Sometimes on vacation learning opportunities fall in your lap and you have to just go with it. This was the case on our college tour/Niagara Falls trip. Every time I said Niagara Falls, my 17-year-old would say “and the Love Canal.” 
Eventually the question had to be asked . . . “What is the Love canal?”
“It’s the site of one of the worst environmental disasters in America”, I was informed.
“Why do we have to go there?” I asked. 

Trash and chemical dump at the Love Canal (now just a grassy area)
I’ve never considered myself an environmentalist. I like nature, but I never wanted to hug trees. I guess I’ve taken for granted what we have here in Maine. Things like the Love Canal have happened all over the country. People have made decisions without thinking of the ramifications. 

After a quick run to Walmart and Sam’s Club, I was informed that we were only a short distance from the site. Not sure what we were going to find, I drove us to a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York. It looked like any suburban neighborhood with small houses, a senior center and a senior housing facility all in use. Across the street was a fenced off area, acres of green grass; but what still is just below the surface is terrifying to think about even 40 years after the problems began. 

On the far side of the fence was the ghost town of what was supposed to be a model community, but it turned into a nightmare for over 220 families. We drove the eerily quiet streets with the sidewalks, driveways and street lights, but no homes or children were on these streets. As we drove my husband read to us about the history of the area. 

The Love Canal was named after William T. Love, who bought the land to build his model community where water from the upper Niagara River would flow through his canal into the lower Niagara River to generate power. However, Love ran out of money in 1907, when investors had to pull out due to an economic downturn years before. 

In the 1920s, it became a dumpsite for industrial waste from the booming city of Niagara Falls. In the 1940s, Hooker Chemical Company began using the site as a place to dispose of its chemical waste until the early 1950s. Hooker Chemical bought the canal and surrounding area in 1947. After lining the canal with clay, it disposed a total of 21,800 tons of chemicals. In 1948, Hooker Chemical became sole owner of the land.

In the fifties, it became obvious that Niagara needed more land for the population explosion that was taking place. When Hooker Chemical decided not to use the site anymore, it sealed the chemicals under clay and sold the property to the city for $1 with the clause that no one could sue them because of the chemicals stored underground. 

The site was used for two elementary schools. For me, the kicker was that the children that attended those schools were my age. If I had lived in Niagara Falls, I would have attended one of those schools. I might be dealing with health issues to this day and the chemicals could have affected my children.

The land adjacent to the schools was sold to developers who wanted to use the land to put in a neighborhood. Because the land being developed was not part of the original transaction with Hooker Chemical it wasn’t disclosed to the families, who were purchasing the homes, that the site was once a 16-acre chemical disposal. When they were building the houses the clay seal was breached repeatedly, according to reports. The chemicals really began leaking after a particularly heavy snow fall and snow melt, raising the water table.

We drove the streets where the neighborhood once stood. The houses were demolished and the over 400 families were relocated. Over 200 homes closest to the site were taken down. The families were given money for their homes to the tune of $15 million from state and federal funds. This was the first emergency money ever paid for something other than a natural disaster. However, the damage was more than chemical-filled water in basements. It was in the emotional scars and birth defects that plagued that generation and the next. The area is still being monitored today and families that moved back into the area are concerned that their health issues are related to the chemicals.

It wasn’t until 1977, that an official investigation was conducted. Reporters uncovered the story and pushed until something was done for the families in the area. There are so many more details to this story, so many that we might never hear about, so many that remain covered up. I am horrified that no one stood up and said, “Hey, this might be a bad idea.” Or “Maybe we should listen to those families over on 100th Street.”

The rest of our trip was spent doing research and talking about what happened in this corner of New York. How could something like that happen? Could something like that happen in Windham? We never know what the impact of our decisions could be later in life. 

We never would have known that a place like the Love Canal existed, if it wasn’t for my son hearing about it on a podcast. Someone decided that it was a story that shouldn’t be buried. Things that are swept under the rug are destined to be repeated. We need to learn from what has happened in the past, so it won’t happen again. 

You may not be a “tree hugger” or care about the environment, but we all care about what could happen if we are not responsible with our actions. Every time I think about these families and what they must have gone through, I cringe. The Love Canal isn’t some sweet, romantic ride at an amusement park. It is a reminder that our actions have lasting consequence. I had to drive to upstate New York and be forced by my teenager to learn what happened there. Maybe it’s time to listen.

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