Spectacular Failures - The toxic tale of the Love Canal fail (Transcript)
Enjoy a transcript of our episode “The toxic tale of the Love Canal fail.”
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Paul and Jim Palmer grew up in an industry town. The Niagara Falls of their youth was a city full of chemical and abrasives companies. Dozens of them flanked the Niagara River. You just couldn’t escape them. Or their byproducts.
Paul Palmer: The air stank.
That’s younger brother, Paul. And the stank he is referring to is that of hydrogen sulfide, which generally smells like rotten eggs. The stench just hung in the air. Along with the many particulates spewed from the factories.
Paul Palmer: Seriously, if you washed your car and left it out at night, you know, in the morning, there’d be this thin film of grit.
Jim Palmer: But you had to be very careful about removing the dust because if you put your wipers on, it scratched the windshield because of the abrasives. And it would take the paint off a car, too.
Still, the brothers loved those days. Their childhood stories of Niagara Falls seem cribbed from the pages of those old-timey paperbacks for boys. There were the times when they would bike across the bridge to Canada just to have lunch and buy illegal things.
Jim Palmer: They would check you out for contraband, you know? And there you are riding and that's where you get nervous because, you know, we wouldn’t want to tell him about the firecrackers in the handlebars.
Then there was the time when their older brother, Jack, dumped an open container of gasoline into a nearby sewer — which was likely full of chemical runoff — and then lit it on fire. For fun.
Jim Palmer: It lifted manhole covers for about a block down.
Honestly, boys are so weird.
Paul Palmer: There was always some kids who did lose fingertips and stuff. We were just not among those.
Yeah, no bigs. Just some fingertips.
But this might be my favorite Palmer brother tale from their time growing up in Niagara Falls.
Jim Palmer: Well one night, the Little Niagara river caught on fire. And it trickled over the falls. Didn’t get to see it, that would have been something to see, but — the water caught on fire. And it traveled like a mile. And it didn't extinguish itself until...over it went.
Paul Palmer: Went over the falls and then the falls put it out. Yeah.
Ok, so let me just recap that for you. A patch of chemicals leaked from one of the factories that dotted the banks of the river and somehow ignited, then floated atop the river until it went over Niagara Falls.
So instead of a crazy dude in a barrel going over the falls, it was just a giant slick of flaming pollution.
Jim Palmer: That one kind of made headlines for a while.
Two decades after the Palmer brothers’ wild and wooly childhood in Niagara Falls, their city was in the headlines again. But this time for something far graver than a fiery garbage patch bobbing down the river.
In 1978, Niagara Falls’ Love Canal neighborhood became home to one of the country’s worst environmental disasters. The Love Canal incident wreaked havoc on a community that until then had been a pretty okay place to live. That was before toxic sludge seeped into people’s basements and bubbled up in their backyards. And before people started getting sick.
I’m Lauren Ober and from American Public Media this is Spectacular Failures, the show that tells failure to give a hoot, don’t pollute.
When Luella Kenny first saw the house at the corner of 96th and Greenwald, she thought she had found her own little patch of perfect. It was a single-story ranch on a one-acre lot in the tidy working-class neighborhood of Love Canal.
And the house had a waterfront view. Kind of.
Luella Kenny: It was the confluence of three creeks coming in and it was beautiful. And we thought, well, we had two sons at the time and we said this would be a great place to live, to raise our children.
She and her husband didn’t know much about the neighborhood, but, location, location, location! So they bought the house and settled in to raise their boys.
Luella Kenny: You'd look out your window. I mean, I could be washing dishes and I could look out the window and see these creeks and all these oak trees. And it was just beautiful.
When the Kennys moved in in 1969, Love Canal was a neighborhood full of young families like theirs. There were schools and churches and ball fields for the kids. And the vibe was super neighborly.
Luella Kenny: We had block parties. I became quite friendly with the next-door neighbor. We did a lot of baking together. We had New Year's Eve parties and things back and forth at each other's houses. And we became very close. And even with some of my neighbors across the street, it was just a very nice neighborhood.
But Love Canal was never meant to be a neighborhood at all. It was, as the name implies, supposed to be a canal.
The “love” in Love Canal comes from William T. Love. He was an entrepreneurial sort of guy who worked for a railroad company. And he recognized that there was no way to navigate between the big and little Niagara rivers up to the Great Lakes because of that whole massive waterfall situation between them. Love intended to remedy that.
This is where the “canal” part comes in. Love came to town in the 1890s with plans for a giant metropolis he called “Model City” and central to those plans was a canal that would let ships bypass the falls. It would also provide cheap, abundant hydroelectric power.
Terry Lasher Winslow: It actually started out as a good thing to have a canal with a source of power and a gateway from Lake Ontario, which was the lower Great Lake, up to the Lake Erie and up all the way to Lake Superior.
That’s historian Terry Lasher Winslow. She grew up in Niagara Falls and according to me, there’s no one who knows more about the place.
Soon, Love’s Model City started to take shape.
Terry Lasher Winslow: ...and they had stores and a hotel and a post office and a couple mills.
But it was ultimately not to be. A recession in 1897 and another in 1902 bankrupted Love and put an end to his utopian scheme. When he finally packed it in, Love had dug out just a mile of his canal. The trench filled in with water and everyone forgot about the failed experiment.
But despite Love’s failure, Niagara Falls was really feeling itself. The hydropower that the falls generated was a huge boon to the city.
Terry Lasher Winslow: And when it was converted to electric power, there was a lot more opportunity for the industries to come and they were called the electrometallurgical or electrochemical companies.
And they made things like aluminum, chlorine, potash, PVC, and DDT. Also...shredded wheat. Ok, sidebar: the man who invented the cereal set up shop in Niagara Falls. The business lasted until 1992. And it was a real blow to Winslow when it shut down.
Terry Lasher Winslow: We've lost our shredded wheat and our Triscuits and we miss them terribly. You could drive by the factory and smell the Triscuits baking. It was very nice.
But back to chemicals and abrasives. Those were the city’s main industry… along with tourism thanks to the mighty falls.
The chemical companies helped build Niagara Falls into one of the biggest cities in New York State. The population grew to around 100,000 and there were jobs for everyone who wanted one. The city’s economy was strong and its downtown was booming.
Terry Lasher Winslow: From 1900 up until the 1950s. New things were coming along and being developed. So it was a source of pride.
Still just like the Palmer brothers, one of the things Winslow remembers most about the Niagara Falls of her youth was the smell. One day when she was a kid she went driving with her grandparents down Buffalo Avenue, or chemical row as it’s known. It’s a long, straight road that headed east out of the downtown and it was lined with chemical companies.
Terry Lasher Winslow: And I was in the back seat and I said, pew, it stinks. It really smells around here. And I plugged my nose with my hand and my grandfather turned around and admonished me and said a city has to have these industries in order for people to be able to have jobs so that they can buy their own homes and they can have food to eat and live their lives. And as a 5-year-old, I kind of went, oh, all right. But it still stinks.
One of those stinky chemical companies that operated along Buffalo Avenue was Hooker Chemical Company. It had been there since the early 1900s and it made all sorts of delicious stuff like chlorobenzene, trichloroethylene, and sulfur chloride. Also the very scrumptious sodium sulfide, sodium sulfhydrate, and sodium tetrasulfide. Just kidding. Don’t eat any of those. Or sniff them. Or really go around any of them without an eyewash station nearby. Really, it is not safe.
Now when you make all those chemicals, there’s going to be some waste — that’s just science. And that waste has to go somewhere. And Love Canal, which had basically just become a pond, seemed like a pretty great option.
Andy Hoffman: For a while, people in the town used it as a swimming hole.
That’s Andy Hoffman. He’s a professor of sustainable enterprise at the University of Michigan.
Andy Hoffman: But then the government started back dumping waste there. And then Hooker Chemical took it over and dumped quite a bit of waste there. And it was, as sites go, it was actually quite good for this purpose because it wouldn't migrate because it was clay.
Unless you poke holes in it, clay is pretty impermeable. And the idea was that if the canal walls and floor were made of clay, the hazardous waste dumped by Hooker and the U.S. government before that would be trapped. Fun fact — waste left over from the research relating to the Manhattan Project was also dumped there. At the time, Hoffman explains, that was kind of just how things were done.
Andy Hoffman: It was considered standard practice. We don't know what to do with it. So we'll just bury it ideally in a place where it won't move. And, you know, our awareness of the dangers of some of these chemicals was still in its infancy. I mean, common sense would tell you this is a bad idea, but there are things we do today that common sense would say, what are you folks thinking?
Now, this is not to excuse Hooker Chemical. Basically, they were taking flatbeds loaded with 55-gallon drums full of toxic sludge and pushing them into the canal. And people knew that wasn’t a super idea, even back in the first half of the 1900s when all these dumperoos were happening.
Andy Hoffman: Why did they do this? Because it was really cheap. And it's a lot more expensive to deal with that by burning it or any of the other technologies that were available. So let's not take the profit motive out of this.
Eventually, Hooker bought the Love Canal site for its exclusive dumping needs. But by the early 1950s, Niagara Falls was getting its post-war boom on. The chemical companies were humming along and the city needed new housing and schools. So Niagara Falls made a move to acquire the 70-acre Love Canal.
Andy Hoffman: Under the threat of eminent domain, they bought the property for $1 and Hooker put a stipulation on the deed saying, you know, there’s bad stuff in there, we don't know what's in there, you really shouldn't dig. And, the town promptly started to dig.
In an internal memo, the vice president of Hooker Chemical wrote: “We became convinced that it would be a wise move to turn this property over to the schools provided we could not be held responsible for future claims or damages resulting from underground storage of chemicals.”
So this toxic waste landfill was sealed up with more clay and then, I kid you not, they built a school on top of it. And then they built another school six blocks away. Who. Thought. That. Was. A. Good. Idea?
Amy Hay: And then they're going to build a suburban neighborhood around it. And it was considered a great neighborhood because it was close to the jobs with the chemical companies.
That’s Amy Hay. She’s a history professor at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. And she wrote her doctoral dissertation on Love Canal.
Shortly after the schools opened, a 25-square-foot “soft spot” emerged near the grounds. And what did that soft spot reveal, you ask? Oh, just some buried drums of toxic waste...marinating in more toxic waste. And when it rained, those soft spots would become puddles and the kids would splash around in them. Fun!
Still, life carried on as normal in Love Canal. The city of Niagara Falls was still on the upswing and to accommodate the growth, they built the Lasalle Expressway in the late 1960s. This little stretch of highway sat right at the southern end of Love Canal, in between the neighborhood and the Niagara River. And that was a problem.
Andy Hoffman: They put in a highway which blocked the migration of groundwater, which, by the way, was dumping into the Niagara River. So, it's not like that was really great either. But now it created a bathtub and so the more it rained, the more it came up and it overflowed into people's basements. And then you start to have the trouble.
In 1975, heavy snowfall meant that everything was real wet when it melted. And that rising water table exposed some serious problems.
Amy Hay: They start to see the chemicals themselves appear right in these barrels and drums. And then people had to start to replace their drainage pumps in their basements routinely because they were being corroded and basically destroyed by the chemicals that were in the water that was infiltrating their basements. So there's an awareness that there's a problem.
Soon the newly formed EPA began investigating and naturally, the local newspaper caught wind of this. And then the lid blew off. Just like the Palmer brothers and those manhole covers.
In the summer of 1978, a Love Canal resident named Lois Gibbs discovered that her son’s school was built atop almost 22,000 tons of buried toxic goop.
Around this time, people in Love Canal were also starting to get sick.
Jennifer Thomson: People start falling ill, largely their children, but also the adult residents as well.
That’s Jennifer Thomson. She’s a professor at Bucknell University where she studies environmental history and politics.
Jennifer Thomson: The majority of them do one of two things at the beginning. They either go see their family doctors who really don't, you know, have an answer to them as to, you know, for example, why their six-month-old child has developed rheumatoid arthritis or why their kids have two sets of teeth coming in. You know, they don't have answers to those things. Or people call the dispensary of the Hooker Chemical plant to ask what to do about the various kinds of rashes or chemical burns that they are popping up with in their backyard.
Now, Gibbs wasn’t having this. Her own kid was sick and her neighbors were inexplicably ill. So she started organizing folks for some kind of action. The resulting Love Canal Homeowners Association — a largely white, largely female group — began its activism by going door-to-door.
Amy Hay: So they're going to plot illnesses. You know, they create a map. It's really brilliant. They are taking terms that, you know, people are saying stomach ache, but they're translating it into a medical condition. But they never consult like a doctor. But that map becomes a really important piece of visual rhetoric that is used very, very effectively by the homeowner's association.
What they found in their door-to-door studies was shocking. And possibly disturbing for some listeners, FYI.
Lois Gibbs: 56 percent of children in our community were born with birth defects. 56 percent of our children had three ears, double rows of teeth, extra fingers, extra toes or were mentally retarded.
That’s Lois Gibbs from the 2012 documentary, “A Fierce Green Fire.” Also, we now say intellectually disabled instead of the R-word.
Lois Gibbs: During that study time there were 22 women who were pregnant and of those 22 pregnancies, only four normal babies were born. The rest of those pregnancies ended in miscarriages, stillborn babies, or birth defected children.
With the help of Dr. Beverly Paigen, a cancer researcher at a local medical center, the homeowners association plotted health issues of the residents living near the canal.
Here’s Paigen from a local news documentary:
Beverly Paigen: We could see a clear pattern of where there was an excess of illnesses. And the residents said, oh we know what that pattern is. That’s where some old swales and streambeds went through the neighborhood.
So, like a good healthcare researcher, Paigen made a trip across New York to the state health department in Albany to share her findings.
Beverly Paigen: And I went there and I showed them these maps, these overlays, that we had the illnesses. I came away thinking that they were really concerned. I remember I walked out of the office feeling very hopeful that they were gonna take this problem seriously. And I went to the airport to fly back home, and there, front headlines on the newspaper was a story saying that I was all wrong. And they had given that story to the press before they had even talked to me. And then I felt this wasn’t science; this was politics.
Even though the state health department dismissed all of this as “useless housewife data,” the powers that be eventually yielded and decided to do their own testing. But...
Jennifer Thomson: Even though all of the tests sort of uniformly show that, yes, something bad is happening, there's no follow-up.
Worse than that, state officials determined that there was no link between the environmental issues and the residents’ health complaints. Rather the unexplained headaches and the duplicate sets of teeth and the liver ailments were just the result of a “random clustering of genetically defective people.”
Yeah, sounds super random.
It’s hard to be the victim of gaslighting under the best of circumstances. But at Love Canal, the residents knew in their guts that where they were living was making them sick. And the activists like Lois Gibbs, Beverly Paigen and Luella Kenny were shouting from the rooftops that Hooker Chemical was responsible. Even though the company denied everything.
CLIP [The Goodday Show]: Well the chemicals at Love Canal were dumped by Hooker Chemical company. And we have as our next guest Donald Baeder, the former president of Hooker Chemical who believes that the story has not yet been put in its proper perspective.
This is from a national TV program called “The Goodday Show.”
CLIP [The Goodday Show]: I’m fine and I think the first question to be asked is, Do you feel this story has been blown out of proportion?/ Oh yes, very much so./ Why?/ Well I think you just blew it out of proportion when you introduced it by saying an epidemic of miscarriages and other diseases. And I think the best medical studies of the area would say that that’s completely false./How about the fifteen pregnancies...
The Hooker Chemical execs weren’t the only ones skeptical of the accusations. The muckety mucks in Albany were, too. And that makes some sense. Linking chemical exposure to illness is a tough sell. Especially when money and power are on the line.
But all that changed in October of 1978. That’s when someone from Love Canal died. A child. Then the ongoing debate took a very different tone.
We’re going to take a break, but when we come back, how Love Canal led to landmark environmental legislation. And how that legislation is now in jeopardy 40 years later. Plus, a trip to Love Canal where I give Google Maps a piece of my mind.
Before we all became one with our couches thanks to coronavirus, my producer Whitney and I took a trip to Niagara Falls.
Lauren Ober: Oooh, it’s so misty!
I hadn’t been there since I was a kid and it truly is a breathtaking sight to behold. I mean, except for the Canadian side.
Lauren Ober: You know what is really sad actually? That like you look across the way and you see a sign for IHOP and TGIFriday’s. Like, it’s this pristine natural wonder and all you see across the way on the Canadian side is just branding. It’s really a shame.
Whitney Jones: I mean, then again, what better place for an international house of pancakes than between two countries.
|Lauren Ober: Ugh, Jesus Christ...
But we weren’t there to take in the majesty of the falls. We were in town to visit the Love Canal site. So after our obligatory tourist outing, we hopped in our Chevy Cruze rental car and fired up the ol’ Google Maps.
Google Maps: Where would you like to go?
Lauren Ober: Love Canal.
Google Maps: Getting directions to Love Canal Superfund.
How many people do you think are navigating to Superfund sites right now in the U.S.? Just curious. Anyway.
Google Maps: Starting route to Love Canal Superfund. Proceed to Rainbow Boulevard, then turn left.
LO: Alright. Whatever you say, lady. Oh, parking brake. That would be helpful.
The Love Canal neighborhood is about 7.5 miles east of the falls proper. To get there, we took the Niagara Scenic Parkway, which skirts along the river.
Lauren Ober: I feel sad because this is supposed to be like the scenic drive and instead it’s just, like, a thousand chemical plants. And transmission lines. And water intake towers.
One of the chemical plants we passed was quite familiar.
Lauren Ober: Oh, there's the Oxy...There's the Occidental Company.
OxyChem is a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, the company that bought Hooker Chemical in 1968. After the company had buried many tons of toxic waste and sold the land to the local school district.
After passing all the chemical plants, we drove onto the Lasalle Expressway — the roadway that helped expose the problems at Love Canal.
And finally, after wending our way through a neighborhood of modest one-story ramblers, we get where we’re trying to go.
Google Maps: The destination is on your left. Love Canal Superfund. Arrived.
Now I just want to note that we didn’t quite end up at the Love Canal site. The GPS navigated us into the center of a neighborhood a few blocks from the actual landfill. I’m sure the neighbors must love that.
It was raining when we visited, so we didn’t wander around much. But even if it had been nice out, there isn’t much to see. The landfill site itself is a fenced-off area the size of roughly 53 football fields. There’s no signage alerting people to what is inside the fence perimeter. Just some placards that read “Private property, no trespassing” tacked along the fenceline.
Close to the fenced-off area is an Elk’s Lodge, a senior center and a mosque. Luella Kenny’s old house is a block from the mosque. So we did a little drive-by.
Lauren Ober: Here is where our friend Luella lived. And this is where she raised her kids.
We pulled up to a house at the corner of 96th and Greenwald. It’s a squat brick spread painted a dove grey with white trim. Though when the Kennys lived there from 1968 to 1978, it was red.
Behind the house is a serene wooded area. Bergholtz Creek runs through it on its way to the Little Niagara River.
Lauren Ober: Yeah, I mean, you could see it was a lovely, you know, a lovely little house on the corner lot here. You know, a sweet little spot for your family.
When Kenny moved to this house, she and her husband had two boys. A few years after they moved in, they had a third. His name was Jon and according to his doting mom, he was a really nice little guy.
Luella Kenny: On our dinner plates, you’d come and you’d find “I love you” on there. So I mean, he was a very sweet, loving, you know — he was an imp. Don't get me wrong. He was an imp.
In June 1978, when Jon was seven, he began having a series of health issues — a distended stomach, seizures, a blood clot in his lungs. He was in and out of the hospital before he was finally diagnosed with a degenerative kidney disease called minimal lesion nephrosis.
Kenny and her husband had no clue how their previously healthy boy could be sick like that. But her Love Canal neighbors had some ideas.
Luella Kenny: People were coming to me and they said, do you think it's the chemicals? I said, oh, no. I said, you know, there's nothing there. And so I, I just sort of ignored it. I was very busy with my son's illness and back and forth to the hospital.
Nephrosis, the doctors told the family, was the “best disease” a child could have because it could be cured. But then on October 4 of that year, Jon died unexpectedly of a heart attack. The little boy suffered a massive pulmonary embolism — a rare complication of his illness — and his heart gave out as he desperately tried to catch his breath. Kenny was understandably devastated.
Still she wasn’t ready to admit that her own home, which they loved so much, made Jon sick.
Luella Kenny: I did not want to believe it was the chemicals. That was a difficult thing to believe, that you had your own backyard and it was chemicals.
But then Kenny learned that the state was planning to investigate her son’s death. Testing had found that their creek was contaminated and that prompted the state’s call for an autopsy. For Kenny, a cancer researcher, and her chemist husband, this was more than just a coincidence. So they started an investigation of their own.
For months they combed medical libraries looking for clues.
Luella Kenny: I was appalled to find, you know, article after article saying that exposure to chemicals did cause the disease that Jon had.
More specifically, exposure to dioxin. Dioxin was one of the main ingredients of Agent Orange, used during the Vietnam war. And it is one of the most potent immunosuppressants out there. So it’s truly nasty stuff.
That creek where Jon and his brothers played was filled with it. So was Kenny’s backyard.
In her grief, Kenny was propelled into activism. Along with the other members of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, Kenny showed up at protests and city meetings and told her story. Like the other residents, she demanded action.
CLIP [Luella Kenny]: Do you know what it’s like to lose a child? Do you? Because I can tell you exactly what it’s like to lose a child. Well it’s terrible and when it’s due to chemicals, it’s even worse. Much worse. So it’s about time you people woke up and stopped fooling around here and do something. Do something decent and care about the people that live in this city. I won’t stay in this city. I don’t want to. And I was born and raised here and I always stood up for this city. 42 years I’ve been in this city and now I don’t give a darn about it.
Public protests like this became commonplace in Love Canal. Folks weren’t going to back down until they were evacuated, relocated and compensated. To that end, Lois Gibbs and the residents staged a number of unorthodox actions designed to keep the Love Canal story in the news. Including some light hostage-taking.
Lois Gibbs: We’re not going to do anything violent. We’re just going to keep them in the house, nothing more than that, and barricade the doors. Okay? And don’t let them out.
In May 1980, the White House had shot down a proposed emergency declaration for Love Canal. In protest, the homeowners group held two EPA officials in a house for five hours while Gibbs communicated the residents’ demands to the White House.
Lois Gibbs: If I was to let the two EPA representatives come out of this door, does anybody know what would happen to them?
EPA official Frank Nepal was one of the hostages.
Frank Nepal: I guess I’m here for the duration./ Meaning what, the duration?/Well, I guess until the White House gives the homeowners some sort of answer.
Ultimately, the hostages were released unharmed. And the Love Canal residents, who had been painted as hysterical housewives, emerged victorious. Just a few days after that action, president Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency. That meant that 728 families within a 50 square block area of the dumpsite would all be relocated.
Jimmy Carter: The whole question of disposal of hazardous waste, especially toxic chemicals, is going to be one of the great environmental challenges of the 1980s. There must never be in our country another Love Canal. Thank you very much.
The government eventually bought all of the homes within that 50-square-block area. It was a huge win for the homeowners.
Luella Kenny also prevailed. The courts found that her son Jon died as a direct result of exposure to chemicals. Kenny and the other residents later settled with the state for just over $20 million. But after lawyers’ fees and the portion of the settlement that went to the Love Canal Medical Fund, there wasn’t a ton left over for the hundreds of families who were part of that suit.
CLIP [NBC]: It took 20 years, but tonight the last 900 people who fled the infamous Love Canal in upstate New York have money in the bank, cash settlements that range from as high as $100,000 to as little as $83. But money, however, cannot erase the trauma for victims of the nation's most infamous toxic disaster.
Perhaps the biggest winner in the Love Canal disaster was the environment. Now, I know that seems counter-intuitive, but here’s why. While it took a minute for the Carter administration to get with the program, they eventually did. In December 1980, Carter signed new legislation into place to help prevent this type of catastrophe from ever happening again.
The creatively named Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980 is what we know today as the Superfund law. And what is Superfund? We’re gonna get some help on that from David Konisky. He’s a professor of public and environmental affairs at Indiana University. And he’s also a renowned expert on Superfund law. So, lucky for us.
David Konisky: So this is a complex environmental statute that was passed by Congress in a lame-duck session after the Love Canal episode. And it gets the name Superfund because one of the things the program did was create a trust fund in order to fund cleanups when it was not possible to find a private-sector party to do the actual remediation.
So through various regulations and taxes, companies would pay into this trust fund to help deal with future remediation of contaminated hazardous waste sites. Seems fair.
David Konisky: And what that law is really trying to do is address, you know, the legacy or the fact that we have many contaminated sites across the country where pollution had been put into the ground and kind of forgotten about, right. And the whole idea of the program is to leverage the public resources to get those who are responsible to take care of the mess that they left.
Love Canal is Superfund site number one. The original. Currently there are more than 40,000 total sites in the U.S. Though the most pressing of those are on something called the National Priorities List. There are almost 1,200 of those. Think of them as kind of pollution’s greatest hits.
David Konisky: Some sites are like Love Canal. They are old landfills where hazardous waste may have been buried in sort of a casual way. But it also includes things like abandoned mines and long segments of riverways where there may have been discharge of hazardous substances into the river to old dry cleaning sites so that it really is a heterogeneous mix of facilities.
The Superfund law was written with the idea that polluters would pay for the clean-up, full stop. Assuming that those polluters could be found. If not, the EPA would step in and pay for the cleanup out of the “superfund” that all the companies were paying into.
But in the 1990s, the Superfund tax on companies expired. And it was never reauthorized. So now the kitty is filled by a budget allocation. Meaning that generally, only the highest priority sites get funding. And that you and me and everyone we know is paying for it. So much for the polluters pay principle. Thanks, government.
Still, the Superfund legislation that came out of the Love Canal disaster was and remains a landmark law. Not only for the environmental impacts but also because…
David Konisky: It is one of these cases where you have a catastrophe, a public health scare, which is then met almost immediately with a major piece of federal legislation, right. It doesn't happen that often.
Most of the credit for the relative swiftness of the response goes to the residents who never backed down, not once. They kept their story front and center in the news until something was done.
David Konisky: Oftentimes the federal government does respond when there is a traumatic event that captures the attention of the national public. And that's certainly the story of Love Canal, right. A story where it sort of forced people to come to a sort of personal reckoning with, “well if it’s happening there, maybe it's happening in my community,” right, as well.
It helped that the main agitators were white working-class mothers advocating for their little boys and girls. It made them more compelling and sympathetic to the white, male powers that be. The black renters in Love Canal’s public housing complex who were equally, if not more impacted by the hazardous waste leakage, did not get that same purchase, says Prof. Amy Hay.
Amy Hay: I think the other thing that gets tricky is the ways that we think about black motherhood versus white motherhood. So, there are ways that the White Homeowners Association and the women in it making the claims, you know, we have to protect our families, you know, one of the major reasons that they're able to get traction with the state is the claim that there have been increased number of miscarriages.
The cause of the miscarriages couldn’t definitely be pinned on the chemicals. But at the time, the argument was compelling enough to spur action.
Amy Hay: They make a very effective argument for the state's obligation to protect heterosexual families and reproduction. So it’s like, you know, the state has an obligation to protect us so we can be good nuclear families and have children. But that's not going to be a status that they're going to allow the African-American community to have in the public housing site.
To say there was a racial divide at Love Canal is putting it mildly. Housing there was highly segregated. There’s evidence that a couple of members of the Homeowners Association had some KKK affiliation. And a black-owned home was firebombed in 1978, the same year the Homeowners Association was organizing.
Still, there are lessons to be learned from Love Canal, despite the inequity and mistrust between black and white communities. Prof. Jennifer Thomson suggests two important conclusions.
Jennifer Thomson: You know, one thing to take away from it is that the place that we should all start when trying to understand any of these environmental disasters is to start with the what it is that the people who are affected are saying about it.
So basically, believe when kids in Flint, Michigan or grandmas in Cancer Alley, Louisiana or Erin Brockovich in the Mojave Desert tell you that where they are living is making them sick. Period.
The other valuable takeaway to come out of Love Canal is to never underestimate the power of the people.
Jennifer Thomson: People with a relatively small amount of power, I won't say completely disadvantaged, but people with a relatively small amount of power banded together and began to articulate a pretty complex and interesting politics around human health and the environment.
But what of Hooker Chemical? What became of the company that caused this fiasco in the first place?
Ten years before 55-gallon drums of toxic scum began rising from the depths at Love Canal, Occidental Petroleum bought Hooker Chemical. During the years that followed the discovery of hazardous chemicals at Love Canal, Occidental fought bitterly against any insinuation that it might be held responsible. They were like, um we didn’t make the mess, so we shouldn’t have to clean the mess. Or pay for the mess. Or mess with the mess at all.
But in 1994, Occidental agreed to shell out $98 million to New York State to pay for the cost of remediation. And in 1995 Occidental settled with the federal government and forked over $129 million to reimburse the EPA for their clean-up costs. The Department of Defense also kicked in $8 million for all the dumping it did at Love Canal back in the early days.
Now, tell ‘em what’s up Attorney General Janet Reno.
CLIP [C-SPAN]: Today we write the final chapter of the environmental disaster called Love Canal. In doing so we make clear that when people make a mess of our environment and threaten the safety and the health of people, they should and they will be held responsible for cleaning up their mess.
Dammmmmnnnnn, Janet Reno is laying down the law! Though for a multi-billion dollar company like Occidental, the judgment hardly made a dent. It was like the equivalent of an after-school detention. So much for corporate responsibility and learning from past mistakes. A few years ago Occidental was named to an ignominious list of 100 fossil fuel producers responsible for more than 70 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Cool. Polluters gonna pollute.
In 2004, after decades of remediation efforts, the Love Canal Superfund site was removed from the National Priorities List. Meaning that the EPA was satisfied with its cleanup. Today it just looks like a regular working-class neighborhood. Except that right in the middle is a giant swath of land surrounded by a chain-link fence. And the streets bisecting the site are blocked off with bollards.
Even though there isn’t much to see at the site anymore, Luella Kenny says she still gets tons of requests for tours. We sadly didn’t get one because she had just had her knee replaced when we met. But at 84, Kenny seems more eager than ever to make sure that the legacy of Love Canal continues to live on.
Luella Kenny: You know, when I turned 80, I thought that I would just sort of retire from all of this, and then we ran into this situation in Washington where everything that I worked for over the last 40 years was being demolished, so to speak. So I just said I can't give up.
Luella doesn’t want to think her son died in vain. She wants to ensure that his death meant something, that it changed the way we think and act. She wants to know she did right by him. The fact that Love Canal lives on today as a cautionary tale and kind of an inspiration is pretty good proof that she did.
Spectacular Failures is a production of American Public Media. It’s written and hosted by me, sludge monster Lauren Ober. Captain Planet Whitney Jones is the show’s producer. Our editor is toxic waste avenger Phyllis Fletcher. Consummate recycler David Zha is our assistant producer. Our theme music is by the delightful David Schulman. Other original music this season comes from Jenn Champion and Michael Cormier. Kristina Lopez is our Audience Engagement Editor and Lauren Dee is our executive producer. Concept by Tracy Mumford. The general manager of APM Studios is Lily Kim. Super special thanks to our pals Jim and Paul Palmer for sharing so many crazy stories of their Niagara Falls childhood. Like the one about the time they worked at an abrasives company one summer during high school.
Paul Palmer: They all had names like Cowboy, and Rabbit, and Deadeye Dick, and Wild Man. And I don't think I ever knew their actual names.
Jim Palmer: Paul, tell them why Rabbit was called Rabbit.
Paul Palmer: He had 22 children. At least that's what they said. They lied about everything, so probably that too. Oh, Rabbit was a nice guy.