Love Canal

Love Canal in the United States

Love Canal in Environmental Law

A hazardous waste site in Niagara Falls, New York. Discovered in the midtolate 1970s, the site was highly publicized and focused national attention on what had become of the byproducts of industrialization. In 1980, Congress passed the first statute to deal with abandoned hazardous waste sites. That law, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, authorized the federal government to address the problems and started a fund (the Superfund) to help finance cleanups until the responsible parties could be forced to take care of the sites.


Between the years 1942 and 1953, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation (now Occidental Chemical Corporation) disposed of its hazardous waste at a dump site at Niagara Falls. Government documents estimate that approximately 21,000 tons of waste were placed in the area. In 1953, Hooker deeded the property to a New York school district for a dollar. The deed attempted to limit Hooker’s future liability for its past activities at the property.

A housing development and schools were built in the area after the transfer occurred. Soon, chemicals began to ooze to the surface. The residents became concerned by the unusually high number of illnesses in their population. One woman, Lois Gibbs, set the wheels in motion. She had moved to the community in 1974 with her husband and oneyearold son. He developed asthma, a blood disease, and a urinary tract disorder. Later, Mrs. Gibbs had a daughter, who also developed the blood disease.

A local news reporter wrote a story in 1978 that discussed buried chemicals and the types of illnesses they could cause. Gibbs read the article and began to investigate the connection. She tried to get the school closed, but failed. Local environmental organizations were at a loss when she contacted them for guidance. She carried a petition through the community and discovered that health problems were not limited to children. Gibbs organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association, and members began a struggle to get the government to pay attention to the Love Canal situation. They appealed first to the governor, then to the president.

The governor declared a state of emergency on 2 August 1978, and the first group of Love Canal residents, representing 240 homes, was evacuated that year. Two years later, the government evacuated another 500 homes in the vicinity. President Carter declared a federal environmental emergency for Love Canal in 1980.

All but two homes were destroyed. The initial buyout was financed by the state and federal governments, but the government looked to Hooker and its successor to foot the bill. By 1990, over $14 billion in claims had been filed against the company.

Lois Gibbs eventually moved to the Washington, D.C., area and founded an organization called Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Waste to help communities faced with similar circumstances. Her children recovered from their illnesses after they were removed from the area.

The Remedies

Love Canal was one of the first Superfund sites. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation took the lead in the cleanup, with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) providing assistance. They focused on several different aspects of the site. First, they tried to stabilize the source of the contamination. Wastes were consolidated, and an elaborate drainage system was built to catch the leachate from the chemicals. A waste treatment plant then treated the leachate. Forty acres were capped covered with layers of low permeability soil and liners to prevent most precipitation from seeping into the wastes, thereby reducing the amount of leachate. Signs were posted and fences erected to keep people out of problem areas. The sewer system was temporarily cut off, because the outfalls and pipes had been carrying contaminants to Love Canal, and rehabilitated by the EPA and New York in 1985. It was hydraulically cleaned and dredged, the sediments were contained, and access to the contaminants was limited. Later, the soil removed from the storm and sanitary system was incinerated on site.

In 1988 the state government declared the area safe for habitation in most areas, and the Environmental Protection Agency cleared the sale of new homes to buyers in 1990.

During rehabitation, the school board wanted to reopen the schools, but there were hot spots (areas of higher contamination) at one of the schools (93rd Street). In 1988, the EPA had decided to excavate, stabilize, consolidate and cap the area, but the school board believed parents would be opposed to leaving the contamination where it was. The EPA reopened the issue in 1991. To assist in the rehabitation of the area, the EPA amended its earlier decision to allow the hot spots to be dug up and taken offsite for disposal. Backfilling using site soil was approved. Approximately 7,000 cubic yards of soil will be removed, and the property will then be capped.

Love Canal cases have been in the court for years. The Department of Environmental Conservation announced that Occidental has agreed to pay over $100 million dollars toward the cleanup, which does not include other claims or future liability.

The events at Love Canal brought the public eyetoeye with disposal problems throughout the country Public outrage about chemical disposal and its effects has resulted in increased government intervention, not only in cleaning up the problem after it occurs, but also in managing hazardous wastes as they are created. See Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Based on “Environment and the Law. A Dictionary”.



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