Love Canal: Chemical Wastes Back Up

This essay is reproduced here as it appeared in the print edition of the original Science for the People magazine. These web-formatted archives are preserved complete with typographical errors and available for reference and educational and activist use. Scanned PDFs of the back issues can be browsed by headline at the website for the 2014 SftP conference held at UMass-Amherst. For more information or to support the project, email

Love Canal: Chemical Wastes Back Up

by Buffalo NAM Chapter

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 11, No. 4, July/August 1979, p. 6–9

Niagara Falls is a small city in western New York state, a few miles from Buffalo. It is now known as the home of Love Canal, a former chemical dump, which was covered over with residential housing in the 1950s. Dark pools of foul, stinking chemicals seeping upward into the basements of homes were the first signs of the disaster. Within weeks, what at first had seemed a localized pollution nuisance suddenly exploded into a health and environmental catastrophe with international significance. Much has already been written and said about Love Canal. Yet, in all this writing and discussion, Love Canal and its political meaning remain poorly understood. Most of the journalistic analyses have ended up where the chemicals are — on the surface of things. It is worth asking why. 

An answer begins by noticing that nearly all the media attention has been focused on the cleanup, the disaster relief, the roles of the state agencies and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the other aspects of emergency response. What has been conspicuously missing from this extensive reporting is any sustained discussion of the causes of Love Canal. It is not just that Hooker Chemical, the producer of the poisonous wastes in question, is rarely mentioned. The point more generally is that the economic and industrial practices that created Love Canal, including Hooker’s “business as usual” approach to the disaster, have gone unexamined and uncriticized. Reading much of the coverage, we might think we had been hit by some natural disaster. But Love Canal is not some sort of “Blizzard of ’78”; it is, quite clearly and simply, a business-made disaster. And the way to understand it is not as a problem of waste disposal, but rather as part of a gigantic system of waste production and waste mismanagement that is routinely practiced by American industry. 

It is almost impossible to grasp the extent to which environmental poisoning has been a central feature of Hooker Chemical’s operations. The first lab findings, made at the insistent prodding of concerned residents in the Love Canal area, revealed over 80 chemical compounds in the oozing sludge — most of them toxic and many of them known cancer causing agents. Subsequent tests have found more. The lengthening list has recently been capped by the discovery of dioxin — perhaps the most lethal chemical in the tested samples. Study of the affected residents has revealed a grisly pattern of genetic damage. The first searches of health statistics revealed that women in the area had 50% more miscarriages than normal and gave birth to children with an extraordinary incidence of birth defects. In the southernmost section of the area, four of twenty-four youngsters are retarded. Researchers warn that these are only the most obvious indicators. The sophisticated testing now underway is certain to detect more subtle manifestations of environmental disease and toxification; they add that it may be more than twenty years before the full effects of the waste poisons become visible in the tissues and bodies of Love Canal residents. 

It would almost be a relief if we could blame all this on Hooker Chemical and consider Love Canal an exception. But the truth is that this disaster is only the most recent and, for the time being, most spectacular incident in a developing pattern of disasters caused by the production systems of American industry. The deadly chemicals discovered in the canal area are typical creations of the post World War II chemical revolution. In the frantic competition of the postwar era, corporations scrambled to be the first on the market with a new “miracle” product or process, and to reap the enormous rewards associated with these new chemicals. In a pressure cooker race for profits, operating in great secrecy and haste, corporations gave little attention to the hazards presented by these compounds, and the problems encountered in their disposal after use, nor did they investigate the effects of wastes generated in production. As concern mounted outside the chemical industry, and early environmentalists began to point to the dangers of the reckless proliferation of these compounds, chemical companies refused to consider the criticisms, often vigorously attacking their opponents as anti-progress while deliberately withholding new information that reflected badly on their products. In such a situation, irresponsible waste disposal policies and environmental disasters like Love Canal became inevitable. 

Canal Residents Organize 

Love Canal is a disaster of enormous scope and complexity. But the residents of Love Canal, suddenly thrust into an international spotlight, have refused to play the role of passive, frightened disaster victims, grateful for crumbs of assistance. Instead, they have built an increasingly well-informed and effective defense organization, led entirely by local women. 

This group, the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA), has fought steadily for a governmental response adequate to the scale of the disaster. In the process, they have begun to define an important new kind of community based environmental politics. 

The LCHA was founded in July 1978, and rapidly achieved a membership of 1200 families, comprising most of those living in the Love Canal area. New York State met the initial demands of the residents by evacuating 235 families living in what was defined as the immediate emergency zone, buying their houses at full value. But it has refused to acknowledge that residents in adjacent streets are also in urgent need of redress, their homes worthless in market terms, and their health gravely endangered. 

The state has clung to its position despite mounting evidence that the chemical contamination has oozed well beyond the first ring of houses and that its toxicity is more terrible and uncontrollable than anybody can really guage. The LCHA’s battle for expanded protective and rehabilitative programs has therefore become, of necessity, a battle to force broader public recognition of the catastrophic extent of Hooker’s chemical warfare against people and the environment. They have had to take on the larger task of demonstrating the alarming inadequacy of the “business-as-usual” response of the corporations and public agencies. 

In December 1978, after months of inconclusive and frustrating meetings with Albany, the LCHA turned to direct action. Picket lines were set up outside the Love Canal site in an effort to halt the initial remedial work undertaken (digging drainage trenches and clay-capping the surface) because studies indicated the work might expose un-evacuated residents to further hazards. More generally, the pickets sought to build public support for their efforts to win broader, immediate protection for all those whose lives and property had been affected. 

Seventeen people were arrested during the first days of picketing, but all charges were subsequently dismissed by a Niagara Falls judge undoubtedly aware of the growing public support for the Love Canal residents. 

More recently, the LCHA has carried the battle beyond Niagara Falls. On January 11, a delegation came to Buffalo to confront Dr. David Axelrod, the New York State Health Commissioner. He declined to act, refusing to acknowledge in any way the legitimacy of the residents’ claims, or the urgency of the situation. But his refusal at least made clear to the residents that they could expect very little more from the state without massive public pressure. Consequently on January 13 LCHA sent representatives to the public hearing in Buffalo conducted by the U.S. Department of Energy on the nuclear waste problem at West Valley N.Y., the site of Getty Oil Co.’s now abandoned nuclear reprocessing plant. At that meeting they underscored their solidarity with those fighting the threat of further nuclear contamination. 

By striving to identify the common issues in these two different struggles, the Love Canal Homeowners Association has helped to generate a broader political momentum which may prove to be one of the most important results of the Love Canal disaster. Because of the struggles arising from the Love Canal and West Valley, Western New York is rapidly emerging as a focal point of a new environmental politics, a movement focused on issues of industrial waste and based on coalitions of neighborhood groups, environmentalists, organized labor, and activist community-based socialist organizations.

25 Year-Old Bargain Becomes Modern Nightmare 

The Love Canal was originally intended to be an inter-lake ship canal, bypassing the Niagara cataract. It was abandoned in 1894. In the 1920’s, the City of Niagara Falls began dumping garbage and fly ash in the 30 foot deep canal. Hooker purchased the big ditch in the 1930’s and dumped chemical waste into it between 1942 and the early 1950’s. In 1953, it sold the canal to the Niagara School Board for one dollar. A clause in the deed carefully exempted Hooker from any liability for damages to people or property traceable to the buried chemicals — indicating that Hooker was aware enough of the potential dangers to pre-arrange a legal cover. And they weren’t alone in this awareness. A study done at the time of the sale urged the Board to reject the purchase because of the chemical dangers. But the School Board apparently was too tempted by the bargain to care about the predicted health problems. The canal was capped with clay, and in 1955 the 99th Street School School was built directly on top of the chemical vaults. Neighborhood development followed soon after. 

It took 25 years for the price of the 1953 bargain to be fully realized. Alarm has been widespread since early August, when an announcement by the New York State Health Commission recommended the evacuation of all pregnant women and children due to “the extremely serious threat and danger to health and safety.” Although the State and Federal authorities have tried to move quickly, their efforts have been controversial and generally unsatisfactory, which isn’t surprising given the enormity of the human problems, the lack of preparation, the legal complexity and the enormous costs of an adequate response. Estimates of the cost of the cleanup begin at $22 million and there is really no assurance that the most hazardous chemicals can ever be eliminated from the soil. 

More frightening still is the realization that the Love Canal is by no means a lone example. In the Buffalo area alone. surveys have identified 30 industrial waste disposal sites and the EPA now estimates that there are as many as 32,000 inactive hazardous waste dumps throughout the country of which at least 638 pose “a significant imminent hazard to public health.” There are some 20,000 toxic chemicals in commercial production: another 500 are added each year. The health risks they pose have never been fully evaluated. About 270,000 companies produce toxic wastes and roughly 10,000 contractors work to dispose of them.

The situation is clearly out of control. The government estimates that about 2 billion pounds of hazardous wastes are generated in this country every week. Only a small percentage of this waste is properly disposed of. Essentially, hazardous waste disposal is managed by a host of small companies operating under little or no government regulation. In those few states where regulation does exist, it is often more form than substance. In Oregon, for instance, the state is required to examine and approve every type of waste material put into a site. But these requirements are undercut by the same realities hobbling regulation elsewhere: a lack of trained investigators, absence of technical backup and unclear investigative procedures. In Oregon, both the disposal companies and the regulators are forced to rely on a single source for detailed analysis of the waste contents — the producing company itself. “We don’t do any testing ourselves,” said one beleaguered official, “we rely on the integrity of the manufacturer.” This concession points to the problem — the huge chemical corporations have other priorities in mind than integrity. 

Inadequate or non-existent regulation at the state level has also shifted the spotlight to the Federal government where environmentalists look to the EPA to protect communities against the chemical companies. But EPA has fallen far behind in the battle to recognize the waste problem and deal with it. As was frequently pointed out in the news coverage of Love Canal, the powerful agency has become tangled in contradictory programs and conflicting directives. It has not even issued the waste control regulation required of it under the 1976 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. 

The frustration of dealing with the agency has produced a good deal of the anger and resentment characteristic of the local response to the Love Canal crisis. Most of this criticism has certainly been deserved. But there is something suspicious about the demand for stronger regulation coming from the media — which have so warmly embraced Jack Kemp, Howard Jarvis and others who cry for the limitation of funds for government regulation and who would undercut the ability of government agencies to address social needs. These same voices now unite to denounce the EPA’s failure to act more strongly and aggressively. Such criticism has a darker side as well — by barely mentioning the corporations and blaming the whole mess on the easily targeted bureaucracy, the local media encourages cynicism and discourages the kind of strong public role so obviously needed. Hardly coincidentally, such coverage effectively deflects attention away from the waste producers. 

The producers remain central to every aspect of the problem, including the inability of the EPA to carry out its work. The agency has claimed that a good part of its failure stems from funding that is nowhere near adequate to perform the investigative and regulatory tasks assigned to it. EPA officials complain of intensive political pressure on Congress and the agency from large chemical corporations, a claim verified by observers in the nation’s capital who have witnessed the steady stream of industry lobbyists working to  further limit the power of the EPA — in the same way that they hobbled the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). These lobbyists argue that excessive concern with safety and the environment will undercut productivity, profits and jobs. 

Larger ‘Love Canals’ Ahead? 

Questions about regulation, government response and bureaucracy, while important, must not be allowed to dominate public discussion of the issue. To do so is to allow business to shift the focus away from itself — away from the source of the problem and onto the effects. More accurately understood, the catastrophe at Love Canal should serve to direct attention towards an immense problem facing our society, one that the large corporations have ignored and disguised for over thirty years. The problem, simply put, is a production system whose high rate of profit depends on minimizing or avoiding the costs of waste disposal — either by dumping wastes into the “public” air, land and water, or by transferring the costs of environmental safeguards to the public. 

Until this problem is confronted directly, until responses to the waste disposal crisis work their way back to the waste production system at its root, we can expect little more than a succession of ever larger Love Canals. It is increasingly clear that we must organize politically to point the debate in the right direction. The corporations of America, increasingly churning out products for profit have created vast quantities of waste — actually a system of waste production, whose by byproducts become increasingly more toxic as technology becomes more advanced. They have successfully resisted all efforts to regulate what they may produce, how they should produce it, and where they will dump the wastes. The fish-killing sludges in the Atlantic, radioactive waste in West N.Y. state, and Hooker’s chemicals in Love Canal — these and a wide array of pollutants like them have entered our bodies, seeped into our houses, and threaten our future generations. The limits of corporate evasion and irresponsibility have long been passed. “There is no place to hide.”

This article is reprinted from the March 1979 issue of the Buffalo Newsletter, a publication of the Buffalo chapter of the New American Movement (NAM).

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The following sources were used in writing the above article: 

  1. “Old Love Canal Chemical Land Fill, Niagara Falls, NY”, NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, Nov. 78. 
  2. “Preliminary Analysis of Health Effects — Love Canal,” Dr. Beverly Paigen, Research Scientist, Roswell Park Memorial Institute, Oct. 78. 
  3. “Organic Compounds Identified in Three Types of Samples at Love Canal Site”, NY State Health Department, Nov. 78. 
  4. Interagency Task Force on Hazardous Wastes Report, NY State Department of Environmental Conservation. 
  5. Various articles in the Buffalo Courier-Express. 
  6. Various articles in the Niagara Gazette.