The Buffalo News

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

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FOCUS: LOVE CANAL ANNIVERSARY

Lois Gibbs returns to Love Canal, calls state's health study a 'whitewash'

Bill Michelmore and John F. Bonfatti - News Staff Reporters
Updated: 08/01/08 4:52 PM


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Lois Gibbs points on a map to a spot where a playground has been built on land she says is uninhabitable.

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NIAGARA FALLS -- Lois Gibbs returned to Love Canal today with a message similar to ones she has delivered there many times before.

On the 30th anniversary of the state of New York's declaring a state of emergency at the former toxic waste dump, Gibbs blasted the state Department of Health's latest study on former residents.

Gibbs called the study the department's "final whitewash."

She said the department has drastically understated the impact of the toxic levels in the canal on former residents, their children and their children's children.

"It's just not right to pretend this didn't happen," Gibbs said.

Gibbs said the state needs to inform every former resident and their children about the health consequences of having been exposed to the toxic landfill.

Today's observance of the anniversary is particularly powerful for Luella Kenny, whose personal nightmare coincided with one of Western New York's worst disasters.

Her 7-year-old son, Jon, became ill in June 1978. In August, 30 years ago this week, a state of emergency was declared in the family’s south-end neighborhood, Love Canal.

That October, Jon died of kidney disease, which a toxicologist said was caused by exposure to poisonous chemical waste.

The Kennys were one of more than 800 families to be evacuated from the area and relocated by the Love Canal Revitalization Agency after the magnitude of the environmental damage surfaced.

Kenny, who now is the chairwoman of a $1.9 million Love Canal Medical Trust Fund to help former residents, said, “There was hysteria ... It was frightening.”

Kenny and other former residents who lived the nightmare, while the nation watched.

“The two ugliest words in Niagara Falls, and perhaps the country, were Love Canal,” said former Love Canal Revitalization Agency board member Ralph Aversa.

Gibbs, a former Love Canal resident and the prevailing voice of the environmental disaster, returned to the Falls today to tour her old neighborhood.

“What I find very frightening is that the folks who live there now have been abandoned,” Gibbs told The Buffalo News. “Something potentially deadly will leak out of the ground, not tomorrow, but sometime in the next 20 years, and there’ll be no one there to help the people.”

The revitalization agency was formed by the State Legislature with possibly the most daunting damage-control task in the history of residential neighborhoods: to stabilize and revitalize the Love Canal area.

For Aversa, it was a far cry from 1978, when he was a real estate agent. “I saw actual toxic residue seeping through basement walls,” he recalled. “It was brutal.”

Love Canal owes its name to William T. Love, who in 1893 proposed a planned community within Niagara Falls that would house a million people. The centerpiece was to be a seven-mile, navigable power canal diverting water from the Niagara River to a point above his Model City, where a drop in the level would generate 100,000 horsepower.

Love dug about a mile of the proposed canal before running out of money. Over the years, the open ditch — about 45 feet wide, and between 10 and 40 feet deep — filled with rainwater. Children used it as a swimming pool in the summer and skating rink in the winter.

The unfinished canal was bought by Hooker Chemical Co., which used it as a dumping ground for 200 different kinds of toxic wastes. In 1953, the company covered the canal with a clay cap and sold the property to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1, warning the School Board that hazardous materials were buried there.

The following year, 99th Street Elementary School was built on the site. The construction of houses, streets, sewer and water lines followed, and in the process, the clay cap was breached.

“When we covered it, we used the best technology available at the time,” Roger Hirl, the chief executive officer of Occidental Chemical Corp., which bought Hooker in 1968, “ has said. "We told them [construction] was the wrong thing to do.”

In the 1960s, the construction of the LaSalle Expressway bordering the canal blocked the groundwater under the capped canal from flowing to the Niagara River.

After the Blizzard of 1977, something went terribly wrong. When the snow melted in the spring, the water table rose dramatically, pushing groundwater to the surface, including the contaminated water in Love Canal.

“With nowhere to flow, the bathtub overflowed,” said Harvey N. Albond, who was city manager in 1979. “This mixture of a devil’s broth bubbled up through the breached clay and into the backyards of houses . . .

“Fear of the unknown gave rise to concern and hysteria.”

Houses on 97th and 99th streets, closest to the canal, were hit first. “The backyards were like cesspools,” said Aversa.

On Aug. 2, 1978, the state health commissioner, Dr. Robert Whalen, declared a state of emergency and Gov. Hugh Carey ordered the homes closest to the canal to be evacuated, bought by the state and demolished. The 99th Street School was closed, and, although there was no mandatory evacuation, 239 families were urged to leave their homes.

Families where the women were pregnant or had children under age 2 were evacuated first. Four of the babies born on 99th Street about that time were found to have birth defects, according to a study by the state Health Department. The rate of miscarriages was 3z times the normal rate in one group of women who lived near the canal.

In 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued a second emergency declaration and offered federal funds to buy 564 more homes in what was called the Emergency Declaration Area.

But the evacuations were still voluntary, and many residents refused to leave their homes, calling the government’s actions overkill.

As a result of the Love Canal disaster, the federal government began an $8.5 billion Superfund program to clean up hazardous waste sites nationwide. Since Superfund was enacted into law in 1980, more than 600 sites have been cleaned up or are in the cleanup process, said Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Michael J. Basille.

After a 16-year legal battle between Occidental Chemical Corp. and the federal government, the Department of Justice and the EPA announced a settlement in December 1995. Occidental would pay the federal government $129 million for cleanup costs.

Occidental has maintained that the government overreacted and that no serious health effects were proved to be a direct result of the chemical wastes dumped in Love Canal.

Today, in the city that helped launch the modern environmental movement, Love Canal leaves a range of emotions in its wake.

The area where toxic waste bubbled up into basements and backyards in the late 1970s is now part of a 70-acre landfill nestled quietly behind a chain-link fence.

A half dozen homeowners refuse to leave the south side of Colvin Boulevard. And on the north side, a neighborhood called Black Creek Village emerged. More than 200 dislocated and new families moved into the area, mostly lured by houses that were being sold at 20 percent below the market value.

A baseball and softball complex and playground were built.

“Love Canal truly is a success story,” Basille said.

Gibbs — who left the Falls in 1981 to create the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Washington, D. C. — doesn’t see it that way.

“There are still 20,000 tons of chemicals buried there,” she said. “Removing Love Canal from the Superfund list didn’t remove the chemicals. The hazard is still there. The people were lied to by the government and are still being lied to. Love Canal will leak again. It’s only a matter of time.”

bmichelmore@buffnews.com and jbonfatti@buffnews.com


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