Love Canal is not a place many people would choose to visit on a honeymoon. Love Canal was a quiet neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, that became infamous as one of the most horrific toxic waste dumps in the country. The history of Love Canal began in the 1890s, when entrepreneur William T. Love envisioned building a canal that would connect the two levels of the Niagara River, above and below the falls, for generating electricity and, eventually, as a shipping canal. He dug about a mile (1.6 km) of the canal, with a channel about 15 feet (5 m) wide and 10 feet (3 m) deep, before his scheme failed and the project was abandoned. Eventually his land was sold to the city of Niagara Falls, which used the undeveloped land as a landfill for chemical waste. The canal was thought to be appropriate for this use since the geology consisted of impermeable clay and the area was rural. The area was then acquired by Hooker Chemical, which continued its use as a toxic chemical landfill, dumping more than 22,000 tons of toxic waste into the site from 1942 to 1952, until the canal was full. Then the site was backfilled with four feet (1.2 m) of clay and closed.
As the city of Niagara Falls expanded, land was needed for many purposes, including schools. The local school board attempted to buy the land from Hooker Chemical, but the chemical company initially refused, showing the school board that the site was a toxic waste dump. The board eventually won and purchased the site for one dollar, with a release to Hooker Chemical that the company had explained about the toxic wastes and would not be liable for deaths or resultant health problems. A school was then built directly on top of the landfill. During construction the contractors broke through the clay seal under the landfill that was intended to prevent leakage of the waste into the local groundwater. Soon after this in 1957, the city constructed sewers for a neighborhood growing around the school, and in doing so broke through the seal of the landfill again, after which chemicals began seeping out of the old canal in more locations. Further construction of roads in the area restricted some of the groundwater flow, and water levels in the old canal rose above ground level, so the site became an elongate pond.
Children in the area began showing health problems, including epilepsy, asthma, and infections, but the source was not known. In 1978 parents in the community united under the leadership of a concerned mother, Lois Gibbs, and discovered that their community was built on top of a huge toxic waste dump. Their complaints of sick children, chemical odors, and strange substances oozing out of the ground were at first ignored by local officials, but were heard in 1979 by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA documented a disturbingly high incidence of miscarriages, nervous disorders, cancers, and strange birth defects. More than half of the children born in Love Canal between 1974 and 1978 were documented as having birth defects, some of which were severe. Many legal and political battles ensued, with the residents unable to sell their homes. Both the city and Hooker
Chemical (by that time a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum) denied liability, and the health problems persisted. Residents were losing the legal battles against the local government and the chemical company.
On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal, and began relocating residents living closest to the canal. Carcinogens such as benzene were discovered in the groundwater around the site, and many residents showed a range of severe health effects, including leukemia. On May 21, 1980, President Carter declared a wider state of emergency and relocated more than 800 families away from the site. This and a similar chemical waste catastrophe at Times Beach, Missouri, led Congress to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), commonly known as the Superfund Act. The EPA sued Occidental Petroleum, which paid $129 million in compensation, and a permanent Superfund Act has helped hold many polluters liable for similar negligent acts that have polluted the nation's land and groundwater resources since that time.
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