The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History Advanced Placement United States History Study Guide

Period 8: 1945-1980

Everyone’s Backyard: The Love Canal Chemical Disaster

A protest by Love Canal residents, ca. 1978. EPA photo/WikipediaIt all started quietly. There were no alerts, no sirens, no evacuation plans, no reports from Jim Cantore on the Weather Channel. Most people living in the LaSalle neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York, first heard about problems in the spring of 1978 when scientists from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) appeared on their streets. These officials were looking for the source of chemical contamination in nearby Lake Ontario. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, but especially during and after WWII, Niagara Falls had become the home to a thriving chemical industry, attracted in part by cheap hydroelectric power. Plans to produce power dated as far back as the 1880s. One spectacular failure occurred when local entrepreneur William Love dug a canal, which would have linked two different elevations of the Niagara River to generate electricity. The economic crash of 1883 and Nikola Tesla’s discovery of alternating currents ended Love’s project, leaving a trench approximately one mile long and as deep as forty feet in some places. The spot later became a municipal dumpsite and local swimming hole. Hooker Chemical bought the land in the 1940s and used it to dispose of over twenty thousand tons of industrial chemical waste. The company covered the site with a clay cap and in 1952 sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1, with the understanding that the company could not be held responsible for any future problems. Over the next two decades, barrels of chemicals sometimes surfaced, and families living in the suburban neighborhood that grew up around the 97th Street School frequently replaced their basement sump pumps. With the appearance of the EPA scientists, residents slowly became aware that their middle-class neighborhood had been built above the abandoned toxic waste landfill. The Love Canal chemical disaster had begun.

Love Canal represented a different kind of environmental calamity, one in which the pollution remained mostly invisible and odorless, the hazards uncertain, and the response indifferent at best, uncaring and criminal at worst. Sociologist Kai Erikson has called toxic waste “a new species of trouble,” one that poses specific problems for residents, public health scientists, and elected officials. For Love Canal’s residents, the discovery of hazardous chemicals buried in their ordinary, typical suburban neighborhood sparked health concerns, challenged notions of citizenship, and increased expectations of the state. They went from viewing their neighborhood as part of a productive and prosperous industrial city to a contaminated landscape, unfit for families or homes. Examining the stories that residents, scientific experts, and community advocates told about the disaster, it becomes clear that Love Canal marked the advent of working-class activism, presented new challenges for public health departments, and spurred the beginnings of the environmental justice movement.

Unlike other disasters, the contamination of the natural and built environments in Niagara Falls—a contamination with unknown effects—was caused by human beings. This affected broader perceptions of the crisis, complicated by the fact that LaSalle residents questioned the very safety of chemicals produced in local chemical factories, factories representing a significant number of jobs. The immediacy of most disasters was absent at Love Canal, along with typical disaster responses and resources. As activist Joan Malone noted, “there were no Kiwanis with food baskets” to help neighborhood families. Love Canal predated the landmark 1985 United Church of Christ hazardous landfill report, which most environmental activists and scholars recognize as the beginning of the environmental justice movement. Love Canal was also on the cusp of the postmodern “risk society” that characterized the rest of the twentieth and beginnings of the twenty-first centuries.

Residents organized informally, over back fences and kitchen tables, with women leading the mobilization efforts. Awareness of the contamination spread when local homemaker Lois Gibbs revealed that her son Michael had begun experiencing seizures. She contacted local officials to see if she could send Michael to another school, as the 99th Street Elementary School was located directly over the abandoned landfill. Her request was denied, and she started a petition to have the school closed. She went from door to door, talking with women in their backyards and across their kitchen tables. Local families grew increasingly anxious as more information was released, and it became clear that hazardous chemicals were leaking out and exposing family and friends to a toxic stew. Gibbs, her husband, and a friend, Debbie Cerillo, attended a public health meeting held in the state capital of Albany, where they challenged the state’s remediation plans for the area. Traveling back to Niagara Falls, they found residents protesting, burning property deeds in barrels. Gibbs spoke to the crowd, and the residents agreed to hold a neighborhood meeting the next day. At that meeting Gibbs was elected the president of the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association. At first the Homeowners’ Association appeared to have prevailed, as New York state officials agreed to relocate families living closest to the landfill. The state refused, however, to move the remaining 700 residents living in the streets beyond. In the opinion of Department of Health administrators, the evacuated area provided a more-than-ample buffer zone between the contaminated inner-ring homes and those built farther away. Governor Hugh Carey assured residents that if more chemical-related illnesses could be proven in these outer rings, then those residents would also be relocated. Instead of providing surety, the boundary had the unintended effect of solidifying a group identity and raised the stakes for families living in the outer rings with respect to their economic, physical, and mental well-being.

The declaration pitted residents against public health officials as debates about hazards, risk, and responsibility erupted. Under Gibbs’s leadership, the residents mounted an effective media campaign, staging demonstrations in Niagara Falls, Buffalo, and on the road to Albany. With local men employed in the community’s chemical industry, women became the public face of the protests. The movement was non-violent in nature and was focused on protecting families’ health and homes. Practicing what is now called popular epidemiology, Gibbs and the Homeowners’ Association women surveyed their friends and neighbors and plotted the reported illnesses geographically, in the process identifying a possible means by which the broader neighborhood had been contaminated, contamination that had spread via local geological features residents called “swales.” This explanation offered a causal account of contamination that suggested that the chemicals had migrated from the landfill in a non-linear fashion, a direct rebuff of the reasoning used by the DOH to determine the boundary lines of contamination. Despite this epidemiological work, public health officials maintained the safety of the outer-ring neighborhood. But the Homeowners’ Association continued to challenge them. Using the swale study and residents’ experiential knowledge, Gibbs successfully led the Homeowners’ Association in framing the disaster as an attack on the nuclear family, as the toxic contamination threatened reproduction and homes. The emphasis on traditional family roles and the demand for safe living spaces formed the basis for a new kind of citizenship, different from previous relationships with the state centered on economic identity or property ownership. This approach justified relocation based on the preservation of family life rather than on the injustice of dumping toxic waste where it disproportionately harmed minorities and poor communities.

Another aspect of environmental justice at Love Canal can be seen in the relations between homeowners and other residents. As the months wore on, tensions arose among residents, most particularly between homeowners and the occupants of a public housing development known as Griffin Manor. Of the 1100 residents living there, most received public assistance, and 60 percent were African American. One 63-year-old black grandmother condemned the lack of attention low-income renters had received so far during the crisis. The woman never saw any public officials, though she was home all day. She attributed this fact to race. “Mostly black people live in these projects, what do they care? Kill them all (laugh).” Many Griffin Manor renters also felt abandoned by the Homeowners’ Association, whose membership was based on home ownership. This led to the creation of a separate organization, the Renters’ Association. From the beginning, the Renters’ Association had a different relationship with state officials. They were assigned a liaison, but were refused the services of a scientific consultant (something provided to the Homeowners’ Association). The misconception that the renters could leave at any time, unburdened by their investments in property like local homeowners, harmed the group. Poor residents had few resources to be able to move, and Griffin Manor offered some of the only public housing in Niagara Falls with four- and five-room units that accommodated families. While the Homeowners’ Association leadership publicly supported the Renters’ Association, rank-and-file members were more antagonistic. Although the area also had swales running through it, some Homeowners’ Association members argued that the chemicals had traveled in specific directions, currents that missed contaminating Griffin Manor. Many homeowners feared that adding several hundred renters to relocation plans would make the cost too high, and these anxieties in part prompted the tense relations between the two groups. Both sets of residents, however, had to deal with a public health department that struggled to define and respond to the chemical contamination.

Perhaps the greatest irony of the Love Canal chemical disaster lies in the fact that the New York State Department of Health was at the time one of the most sophisticated and advanced public health departments in the country. Under the leadership of Dr. David Axelrod, the department pushed the state to address the leaking chemicals and to demarcate what was contaminated and what was not. Given the governor’s assurances that anyone proving harm from the chemicals would be relocated, the department, in its caution to protect state money, inevitably became the enemy. The department also struggled to transcend a narrow focus of determining risk through the use of laboratory testing of human blood samples and animal experiments to assess harm, and inadequately responded to residents’ increasingly anxious and angry demands. The understanding of risk became a fundamental issue, as residents challenged the DOH’s physicians and scientists to quantify what harm low-level, long-term exposure to known toxins had done to their families’ health. Public health officials bemoaned residents’ ignorance, while they themselves lacked knowledge of the toxic chemicals’ health hazards. When calculations of miscarriages in the area showed a rate as high as 45 percent, one resident accused the DOH of practicing “human sacrifice” in refusing residents’ relocation. While the DOH refined knowledge and procedures that it would put to use in responding to future chemical contaminations, it failed to gain the trust of Love Canal residents, who interpreted scientific objectivity as callous disregard for their lives. This opinion of the department’s shortcomings was shared by other area activists, who called for a more compassionate response to the crisis.

Prompted by the question of one of his congregants who wanted to know what the church was doing to help Love Canal residents, Presbyterian minister Paul Moore helped organize area churches in response to the disaster early in 1979. Local religious denominations created the Ecumenical Task Force to Address the Love Canal Disaster (ETF), providing immediate financial and material aid to relocated residents and those still living in the area. In the process of coping with residents’ immediate needs, the Task Force also attempted to address the larger issues of state responsibility. Led by Sister Margeen Hoffmann, an experienced administrator who had headed traditional disaster relief efforts, ETF members surveyed the needs of the community and debated what role religious organizations should have. Many saw the actions of the Task Force as fulfilling the traditional functions of faith communities—the pastoral and the ethical—as they helped residents deal with the environmental mess and the subsequent social disruption.

Task Force members supported both the Homeowners’ Association and Renters’ Association in their demands for state intervention. More than that, the ETF tried to confront the problem of hazardous waste and environmental contamination more broadly, acutely aware of the significant landfilling of such toxic materials throughout western New York region. The Task Force connected the Love Canal chemical disaster with broader environmental and health concerns, linking a community’s contamination with questions about sustainability and societal responsibility. In this, the Task Force foreshadowed the work of the United Church of Christ, which issued a call for environmental justice in their 1985 report on the siting of hazardous waste dumps within mostly minority and poor communities. The Task Force’s ideological influences—creation and liberation theologies along with the radical teachings of Paulo Freire and his commitment to the poor—also marked the emergence of the idea of earthly or environmental stewardship, a significant shift in previous religious understandings of humanity’s relationship with the natural world as one of dominion over nature.

President Jimmy Carter issued an emergency disaster declaration in May 1980, based not on the physical hazards residents were exposed to, but rather on the mental distress they experienced. Most homeowners and Griffin Manor renters were relocated by the end of 1980, although remediation continued to pose problems for local, state, and national agencies. Many of the homeowners moved only a few miles from the contaminated site to nearby communities, and renters moved into other Niagara Falls public housing locations. Lois Gibbs divorced her husband and moved her children to Falls Church, Virginia, where Michael and Missy showed no signs of continuing ill health. In Falls Church she founded the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, an organization dedicated to supporting grassroots anti-toxic campaigns. A quasi-federal/private agency, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency, began rehabilitating homes that had been built directly above the dumpsite, in what was known as the inner ring. The project was subsidized by state monies and the homes were sold at a discounted rate, as both the city of Niagara Falls and state of New York wanted to put the disaster to rest. State agencies, however, refused to guarantee the safety of the area. While the surrounding neighborhoods again have occupants, the original canal site remains fenced off as remediation activities continue. The disaster gradually disappeared from public memory, despite being at least in part the catalyst of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980, better known as Superfund. The legislation allocated federal monies to remediate uncontained hazardous waste sites. In 1995, the EPA sued Occidental Petroleum (the company that bought Hooker Chemical) and won a $129 million settlement.

In the end, the residents won the battle of Love Canal, but Americans may have forgotten the significance of the disaster. A later episode appears to capture the controversy, frustration, and confusion embodied in the Love Canal disaster, and reminds us of why getting the story right matters. Campaigning for president in 1999, Vice President Al Gore gave a talk to a New Hampshire high school class. Gore used the story of Love Canal as an example of citizen activism, encouraging the students to remember that the actions of ordinary people counted. Reporters from the New York Times and Washington Post misquoted him, and in subsequent news accounts of the event Gore was said to have claimed that he “discovered” Love Canal. The story played to the existing stereotype of the presidential candidate as an egotistical fibber. Lost in the hoopla was what Gore really meant. His message to the students was that they could make a difference, that they could be great. According to student Ashley Pettingale, as quoted in Sarah Vowell’s account of the episode, the press was “focusing on one little itty bitty microscopic thing that when misquoted can mean something completely different but when quoted correctly it means a great thing for democracy and things like that.” Correctly remembering the legacy of Love Canal means more than great things for the political process, as it offers a chance to avoid creating more disasters like Love Canal in anyone’s backyard.


Amy M. Hay is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas – Pan American. Her manuscript, Recipe for Disaster: Chemical Wastes, Community Activism, and Public Health at Love Canal, 1945–2000, won the 2006 Dixon Ryan Fox manuscript prize from the New York Historical Association. 

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