Four decades ago this month, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal an environmental disaster, becoming the first president to order federal emergency funds to be spent on a man-made disaster. Hundreds of families were later evacuated from homes near Love Canal.
In the Love Canal Containment Area today, 40 acres of manicured grassland conceal 21,800 tons of some of the deadliest toxins ever created by the chemical industry: dioxin, lindane, benzene hexachloride, chlorobenzene and dozens more compounds.
Reporter Thomas Prohaska, who recently wrote about the 40th anniversary of the federal disaster declaration, answered readers about the site .
From Mike Haen: How many barrels/gallon were buried originally? How many barrels/gallons still remain? How can we be sure the remaining barrels aren’t going to leak?
From @joe.omilian on Instagram: Where did the chemicals go?
Prohaska: Hooker Chemical didn't keep fully detailed records, but attorneys on both sides estimated during the federal court liability trial in the early 1990s that the company dumped about 25,000 tons of chemicals. That may have been a slight overestimate.
The official EPA figure was that 21,800 tons are still buried in the containment area, and the EPA has no records that any sizable amount of waste was removed from the canal after 1978. So just about everything that ever was there is still there, and the debris created by demolishing the 99th Street School and hundreds of homes is buried in the containment area, as well.
Some material was either incinerated or hauled to licensed hazardous waste landfills. The barrels, of course, were metal and were subject to rust and deterioration. That, plus precipitation runoff and soak-through, is why there are 150 monitoring wells and a leachate collection system that grabs 5 million gallons a year in a trench around the containment area.
From Keith Breisch and Lenore Simon: How far outside the old zone has it migrated? How far out are people affected?
Prohaska: This is a topic of controversy to this day. In 1952, Hooker dug some test holes and found no migration, but clearly there was some by 1971, when chemicals were reported in some residential yards near the canal. Some say that the sewers that served the neighborhood served as a conduit for waste migration. Others say that the LaSalle Expressway, built in 1968 along the southern edge of Love Canal, not only disturbed some of the waste but blocked the normal flow of groundwater toward the Niagara River.
The initial evacuation zone of 1978 was bounded by 97th and 99th streets, Frontier Avenue and Colvin Boulevard, and included the 99th Street School and 239 homes. That was directly adjacent to the original Hooker landfill. In 1980, President Carter expanded the zone to an area bounded by 94th and 102nd streets, Frontier Avenue and Cayuga/Black Creek, which is a couple of blocks north of Colvin. That extended the government buyout offer to 564 more homes, and a lot of people took the money and left.
But voices were raised at the time that the second zone was excessive and unnecessary, especially the part north of Colvin. In a 1999 interview with The News, John J. LaFalce, who was the congressman representing Niagara Falls at the time, conceded that evacuating that far north was driven by "a climate of panic and fear." There were people who stayed put, and by 1988 the state declared the whole area habitable.
Today, there are still a few occupied homes on 101st Street and many on 93rd Street, but there are also plaintiffs in the new Love Canal litigation who lived on 93rd Street and say they got sick, some of them recently. So the answer to the question is, maybe two blocks, maybe six, maybe more.
From Jer Lewis: Why did the City of Niagara Falls run sewer lines through the canal in the first place? That’s what started it all. Why did they allow developers to remove the clay cap over the canal?
From Gregory Kordyban: Why did the Niagara Falls Board of Education build an elementary school and allow a housing development to be built right on top of a known toxic waste dump?
Prohaska: The record is clear that Hooker Chemical at first refused to sell Love Canal because it was toxic and dangerous and had to be talked into it by the city and the Board of Education. The landfill was "sold" for $1 in 1953, and I've been told that Hooker even listed the chemicals that had been buried there on the back of the deed. The deed also contained a clause in which Hooker sought to protect itself from chemical-related injuries on the property.
There was testimony that Hooker yielded because the city was planning to use its powers of eminent domain to seize Love Canal from Hooker so it could get on with the building of the 99th Street School. At the time, that part of Niagara Falls was almost uninhabited — there were six homes near the canal in the 1940s — but the building boom was coming, as Niagara Falls' population grew 30 percent from 1940 to 1960. So it was cheap land.
Occidental Chemical, Hooker's corporate successor, was found liable for not warning the School Board loudly enough about what was in Love Canal. But get this: As soon as the school district's contractor started digging the foundation for the 99th Street School in 1954, it immediately hit buried drums of chemicals. So what did the district do? Did they stop? No. They moved the foundation 85 feet to the east and put the playground over the spot where they found the toxic waste.
Then, in 1955, a 25-foot sinkhole opened up on the playground, drums of chemicals were exposed, and a child was burned by chemicals. What did the district do? They trucked in 10 loads of fill and leveled off the sinkhole. And then the city sold land around Love Canal to home builders, building streets and sewers that further breached the cover on the landfill, even though Hooker sent executives to a School Board meeting and warned them not to.
Don't believe it? It's all in Justice John Curtin's ruling from 1994. Search for "Crater in the Playground." Read it, and the rest of the historical section. Note that although Occidental had to reimburse the government for $129 million in cleanup and relocation costs, Curtin refused to impose punitive damages on the company.
From Dawn M. Harrison: Are there still streets that are not inhabitable and are blocked off to the public?
Prohaska: No, there are not. There are remnants of streets that stop at the fence of the containment area, and some don't exist anymore because they've been buried, but no existing streets are blocked or officially uninhabitable.
From John Etiopio and Judith Hansen Wolin Benson: Why would people buy homes here knowing there was 22,000 tons of deadly chemicals buried within a half-mile radius of your home? The whole area should have been bulldozed.
Prohaska: Millions of dollars were spent on a state habitability study in the second half of the 1980s. It went on for four years and basically decided that it was OK to live north of Colvin Boulevard. Lois Gibbs and many others protested at the time, demanding that residents should never be allowed back. But they lost, and in 1990 the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency, a state-created agency controlled by local politicians, started reselling abandoned homes north of Colvin Boulevard.
Several residents who live there told me they haven't had any trouble, that the neighborhood was heavily tested in the study and found to be safe. The house prices were very cheap at the time, and the federal government had provided money to maintain and renovate them. I talked to one couple who have lived in three houses in that area since it was reopened. They sold two houses at a nice profit and love their current one.
But you can look across Colvin and see that chain-link fence. If that makes you nervous, well, maybe Black Creek Village isn't for you.
Story topics: You asked we answered