Love Canal: America’s infamous toxic waste site

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, an area called Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, became America’s most infamous toxic waste site. Media coverage at the time showed images of holes in backyards filling with thick, black, substances; toxic chemicals entering basements through sump pumps and walls; a grade school closing because of the danger to children; angry citizens screaming at local, state, and federal officials to do something; housewives taking officials hostage. Over 230 families living next to Love Canal were evacuated in August 1978 because of the health risks associated with the over 20,000 tons of toxic chemical waste that had been dumped in the canal by a chemical company in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1980, when the dangers of the chemicals were better understood, the evacuation was expanded to cover an even wider area.

The canal’s beginning was less notorious. It was dug in the 1890s by William Love as part of a proposed power scheme in the Niagara Falls area, but the project failed when it was only partially completed. Other power projects did succeed in harnessing the water from the Niagara River, bringing cheap hydroelectric power to the area. This, combined with a large supply of salt, attracted the Hooker Electrochemical Company in 1906. Hooker manufactured chlorine and caustic soda, used for bleaching, disinfectants, paper, and soaps, but the company did not make money for the first several years.

World War I changed Hooker’s prospects. Germany had monopolized the chemical industry, and when the war cut off supplies from Europe, Hooker and other American electrochemical plants leaped into the breach. By the end of the war, Hooker was producing seventeen chemicals and manufacturing synthetic dyes, perfumes, and medications from coal tars. Net profits in 1918 were $1.34 million.

World War II boosted Hooker’s fortunes, just as the First World War had. Hooker supplied chemicals to make smoke pots, colored flares, disinfectants, military shoes, and lubricating oils, to keep the machines of war running. After the Japanese captured 90 percent of the world’s natural rubber supply, Hook supplied dodecyl mercaptan to the government for the production of synthetic rubber. Thionyl chloride and arsenic trichloride produced poison gases. Hooker was perhaps most proud of, and secretive about, the chemicals the company manufactured for the Manhattan Project, which were used for making the atomic bomb.

The expansion of business increased waste residues from the chemical processes that had to be disposed of somewhere. By the early 1940s, when Hooker had little room left on its own plant property, it found Love Canal.

After its abandonment by Love, the canal was fed by an artesian spring. Watercress, boysenberries, and apple and cherry trees grew along the property. Homes were built in the area, and in the summer, girls and boys swam in the canal. In the winter, residents ice skated on the canal’s frozen surface. The canal stretched 3,000 feet south to north, was about sixty feet wide and ten feet deep.

Hooker acquired the rights from successors to Love’s company to use the canal and started dumping in 1942 in the northern section, between what is now Read Avenue and Colvin Boulevard. Fifty-five-gallon drums were filled with solid and liquid residues at the Hooker plant, loaded onto trucks, and dumped into the canal. Hooker constructed dams along a portion of the canal that was used for dumping, sometimes pumping water out of the dammed-off section in order to dump in drums of the chemicals, and other times emptying the drums of chemicals directly into the water. Hooker also dug pits adjacent to the southern section of the canal for dumping chemicals. Some of these pits were dug within several feet of residential backyards.

The drums, usually old and rusted, were dumped randomly, often breaking open and spilling their contents. The residues filled the pits and portions of the canal nearly to the level of the original ground surface; afterward Hooker would place dirt, and occasionally ash, on top. The effect of all this was to create conditions under which the ground slowly caved in. With drums lying every which way, with spilled liquid wastes mixing with ash and clay and dirt, and with old, rusted drums deteriorating, breaking, and spilling more chemical contents, the ground subsided and potholes appeared, and the dangerous contents of the drums rose to the surface.

Over the years, Hooker management had gained extensive, specific, knowledge of the dangers associated with its chemicals and their residues. By the 1930s, arsenic trichloride was known by Hooker management to be so poisonous that exposure could result in vomiting, inflammation of the skin, loss of hair, and liver and kidney problems. By the 1940s, thionyl chloride was known to be highly reactive; upon contact with the air it created a fume of hydrochloric acid and sulfur dioxide that burned people. Both of these chemicals were used to make war gases and both were dumped at Love Canal. So, too, was mercaptan, a chemical that was used to produce synthetic rubber, and that caused nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and blood in the urine. In all, Hooker dumped more than 200 chemicals at Love Canal.

Within two years of the start of the dumping, chemicals began to surface. Hooker’s Annual Operations Report for 1944 stated that burying its residues was “creating a potential future hazard” and predicted that “eventually we will have a quagmire at the Luve [sic] canal which will be a potential source of law suits in the future.” In August 1946, several key managers from Hooker inspected Love Canal and reported to the president of the company that the entire length of Love Canal was filled with water that appeared to be contaminated, and that children in the neighborhood used the water for swimming. The managers advised the company to fence the property and put up warning signs. Hooker did neither.

During the dumping, residents witnessed fires that shot as high as the houses next to the canal. Explosions at the dump sent burning material up to two blocks away. The proximity of the dumping to homes meant that horrible-smelling, rainbow-colored liquids ran off the canal property and into backyards. Dust, white powder, and ash blew from the dump onto homes. The odors were so foul and pervasive that it led to another inspection by Hooker.

In October 1950, a representative of Hooker reported to management that the ash being dumped at Love Canal was blowing toward houses east of the canal. He observed that the water in the canal was contaminated by an “oil slick and large globules of congealed residue covering most of the surface of the pond,” and that “the ground had settled enough to open pot holes of various depths and that portions of buried drums were exposed in these holes.” Potholes and exposed drums were found at spots that had been filled and covered as little as a few years previously. The representative reported to top management that “it is felt that a fence around this property would be very desirable from a safety standpoint.” No fence was put up.

By the spring of 1952, Hooker knew that the drums in which the chemical residues were buried were in poor shape, and would continue to deteriorate; that the water in the canal was contaminated; that potholes or sink holes had appeared, exposing the drums; and that with time chemicals would rise to the ground surface.

In the spring of 1952 the Niagara Falls school board asked if Hooker would consider selling a part of the Love Canal property. The baby boom had reached the area, and both homes and a new grade school were needed. Hooker initially rejected the idea after top management was advised that the company should look for another dump site and discontinue using Love Canal, that plans should be made to prevent the property from becoming a nuisance, and that it was too risky to sell Love Canal.

Many of the operations staff were distressed at the idea of building a school on a toxic waste site. They knew that chemical wastes were dangerous if disturbed and that subsidence would continue to occur for a long time, so that the wastes would become dangerous even if they were left alone. And they knew that the school board was in no position to manage such a place. The plant superintendent at the time, who later became president and chairman of the board of Hooker, stated:

[T]here was a general knowledge that these organic chemical residues that we were disposing of was a mixture of all kinds of things, who knows what, and it was in the ground all mixed together and we just had a general feeling that, by golly, it better stay there and we better keep control of it to be sure it stayed there. That was just a general feeling that we all had.[1]

Yet less than a month later, Hooker decided to transfer the property to the school board. As one of the managers responsible for the decision wrote at the time:

The more we thought about it, the more interested…[we] became in the proposition and finally came to the conclusion that the Love canal property is rapidly becoming a liability…[we] became convinced that it would be a wise move to turn the property over to the schools provided we would not be held responsible for future claims or damages resulting from underground storage of chemicals.

Thomas Willers, the comptroller of the company in 1952 who attended the meetings of the Management Committee that was responsible for dealing with the school board on Love Canal, later provided an explanation for why Hooker reversed its decision. Willers described how, after the initial contact and Hooker’s refusal, the company looked more closely at its requirements for waste disposal and decided that they could manage without Love Canal. It was close to maximum capacity anyway, alternative sites were available, and Hooker could insist in its agreement with the school board that it be able to continue using Love Canal for a while. Willers further recalled, “I don’t think the property was all that valuable anyway…I’m talking dollars and cents…” Hooker recognized that the area was rapidly developing, and using Love Canal as a dump was becoming a liability. So Hooker gave Love Canal to the school board in return for a provision in the deed that protected the company from any liability there.

One major obstacle, however, was the vociferous opposition to the sale among the plant managers. Because the managers were valued employees, Hooker told them that the transfer of Love Canal had been forced upon the company by the school board, which was going to condemn the property if Hooker did not sell it. One manager was told:

Since the school board was going to take it anyway, we would be smarter to give it to them, in return for which we could get strong statement which would protect Hooker from damage suits if something happened after the school board acquired it.

This explanation, however, did not accurately reflect the negotiations with the school board. It is likely that Hooker’s top management simply concocted the story about a condemnation threat to rationalize to its own people a decision that was laden with problems.

Even though the school board only requested a part of the site, in April 1953 Hooker transferred the entire property to it. Hooker advised the board that the unfilled central section was suitable for installing foundations for a school. Hooker, however, made use of its right to continue to use Love Canal for dumping waste materials until February 1954, including in part of the central section. The City of Niagara Falls also dumped municipal waste into the canal during this period.

Almost immediately after Hooker transferred Love Canal to the school board, the consequences were felt like an aftershock. In January 1954, when Hooker was still dumping at Love Canal, a contractor, excavating the foundation for the new grade school on 99th Street, encountered a pit filled with black water. This was in the central section, the very area in which Hooker had advised the school board that it would be safe to build. As a result of the chemical wastes, the school was moved about eighty-five feet north, but eventually swings and other play equipment were installed on top of the area where the chemicals had been found.

In May 1955, after the 99th Street School had opened, about twenty-five square feet of ground crumbled near the original excavation, exposing drums and chemicals. Some of the children were splashed and their eyes were burned. The school principal called Hooker to ask for information about the chemicals, and a Hooker representative was sent to investigate, along with the Hooker plant nurse. The nurse provided advice on appropriate first aid, and Hooker arranged for ten trucks of dirt and a bulldozer to cover and grade the exposed area.

In November 1957, the school board considered selling part of the Love Canal property to developers for the construction of homes. At the school board meeting Hooker opposed the idea because of concerns that developers would expose chemical waste. What Hooker did not mention, however, was that the chemical wastes had already begun to surface and constituted a more serious problem than the potential risks of new development. Hooker also did not mention that the subsidence problems would continue for decades, resulting in further exposure of toxic chemicals. And though it had recently received disturbing news about one of the chemicals contained in the site, Hooker divulged nothing about the nature of the waste.

As early as the 1940s Hooker workers had experienced outbreaks of dermatitis and chloracne as a result of their exposure to chlorobenzenes, arsenic trichloride, and especially trichlorophenol (TCP), the same chemical that caused the disaster in Seveso, Italy. Chloracne is a skin condition that produces extremely disfiguring pimples, boils, or pustules that recur and can be very painful. They develop around the eyes and ears, but also on the back and chest and even in the groin area, and can continue for years, even decades.

In the mid-1950s, Hooker was contacted by a customer who had purchased its chemicals for use in a weed-killer product. The customer reported incidences of chloracne in its manufacturing facility and among some people who were using the weed killer. The customer asked for confirmation that the chloracne was likely caused by an impurity in the trichlorophenol process. Hooker replied that it believed the impurity occurred as a result of high-temperature boiling in the TCP process.

In April 1957, the director of a German company delivered some disturbing news. The company had been conducting extensive studies in conjunction with a hospital in Hamburg and had traced the impurity in the TCP process, which was causing the chloracne, to a chemical reaction that led to the formation of dibenzodioxine. We know this compound as dioxin. The Germans also reported to Hooker that the dioxin was extremely poisonous, and that all possible precautions to prevent exposure to it should be taken. Where major spillage had occurred, several companies had to decontaminate entire buildings by removing all the insulation, chipping off old paint, and tearing up and replacing floors. The representatives of the German company described dioxin as having “a really sinister character.”

Although Hooker had dumped over 250 tons of trichlorophenol, containing dioxin, at Love Canal over the years, the company did not pass this information along to the school board. At a meeting in November of 1957, the school decided to not pursue the plan to sell off part of the property at that time.

Less than a year after the school board meeting, children again suffered burns from chemical exposure. Hooker investigated and determined that the ground had subsided, exposing drums, and leaving benzene hexachloride (BHC) on the surface. They also saw that the entire Love Canal property was being used by the children as a playground. Children had even picked up the chalk-like BHC cake and had rubbed it in their eyes, which had burned them. Chemicals had also surfaced at homes adjacent to the canal.

Aileen and Edwin Voorhees had lived on 99th Street, adjacent to the canal, since the early 1940s. In 1958 they built a new home and soon began a difficult and ongoing struggle with toxic waste. No matter what they tried, the Voorhees could not stop “thick, black, smelly stuff” from seeping into the basement of their house. Waterproofing the walls did not work, neither did digging a trench around the inside of the basement walls and draining the chemicals. As Edwin Voorhees later described, “all of a sudden you get these chemicals coming through…in the northeast corner of the house…and you also had them coming in the other side, so the only alternative I thought I had was to put another sump pump in and try to pump them away.” But they would not go away.

Meanwhile, back on the Love Canal property, a drum of thionyl chloride had exploded, spewing chemicals, and drums of BHC had surfaced as a result of more subsidence. Children continued to play on the site, throwing the tops of drums like disks. They threw lumps of white powder, which burned them, and chunks of material they called “fire rocks” that sparked or exploded when thrown against other objects.

In the late 1960s, the northern section of Love Canal was transferred to the City of Niagara Falls for recreational purposes, and the southern section was sold to a private individual who never developed the property. No homes were built directly on top of the dump, only on land directly adjacent to the Love Canal property. In 1968, the State of New York acquired a thin strip of land at the very southern tip of the canal as part of an expressway construction project. During construction, the state encountered contaminated soil and chemical waste that it removed from the site.

Chemicals not only rose to the surface as a result of subsidence, but also moved through the ground. The stiff clay soil at Love Canal, extending from about five to twelve feet below the surface, was fractured, providing an easy pathway for chemicals to move away from the dumping site and into the adjacent properties. Residents started to encounter black, chemical water when they dug postholes for fences. Karen Schroeder, the daughter of Aileen and Edwin Voorhees, moved into a house just up the street from her parents. In October 1974 the built-in fiberglass swimming pool in the Schroeders’ backyard suddenly rose several feet out of the ground. When the pool was removed, the hole filled in with chemicals.

Peter Bulka, a local policeman, lived with his family in a home adjacent to the canal. In 1969, Bulka was managing a Little League baseball team that played on a diamond located on the northern section of the Love Canal property, near Colvin Boulevard. During a practice, one of the players came running in after chasing a ball and shouted something about volcanoes. Bulka and the others went out to look and saw that little volcanoes, spewing a light gray fume that smelled like thionyl chloride, had appeared in the outfield. The baseball field was subsequently moved away from Love Canal.

Bulka’s own two-year-old son, Joey, fell headfirst into a pothole on the canal property, and might have drowned if an older brother had not pulled him out. Joey’s face and neck were covered with a black soot-like substance that smelled of chemicals; he later developed an ear impairment. In the mid-1970s Bulka was forced to replace the sump pump in his house three times before finally having one specially constructed to withstand the attack of the chemicals. Nonetheless, two of his children developed severe reactions to the chemicals in the basement. Bulka was experiencing first hand how Love Canal was quickly becoming the quagmire that some Hooker employees had predicted in 1946, and an entire neighborhood was about to disappear into that quagmire.

Bulka was not given to complaining, but he finally took his concerns to the local health authorities in the summer of 1976. His neighbors were not pleased. They worried that if the authorities decided to pursue his complaints, it would negatively affect their property values. Moreover, many of the neighbors worked at chemical companies in Niagara Falls, which were a major source of tax revenue for the city. A complaint about one of the companies was seen as a threat to the livelihood of the community.

In the summer of 1976 New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) investigated the contamination of fish in Lake Ontario from the chemical mirex. As a part of the investigation, the DEC attempted to identify any companies whose present or past disposal practices might have contributed to the contamination of the Niagara River, which feeds into Lake Ontario. Hooker was identified as the only manufacturer of mirex in the area.

DEC staff visited Hooker to ask about any current or former disposal sites that might be discharging contaminants into the river. Hooker officials mentioned several dumping sites, including Love Canal, but reiterated “that they have no legal responsibility for Love Canal.” Arrangements were made for the DEC to visit the Hooker plant facilities disposal sites, including Love Canal, and to take samples. The DEC also requested that Hooker provide information on the identification, volume, and location of the chemical wastes dumped at Love Canal.

In October 1976 the local newspaper, the Niagara Gazette, began an important series of articles covering the “industrial horror story” at Love Canal. They reported on the black, oily substances that were ruining Peter Bulka’s sump pumps, even hiring a consultant to test the sump. That November, the Niagara Gazette reported that the results from those tests revealed that fifteen organic chemicals were found in the sample from Bulka’s basement sump, including three toxic chlorinated hydrocarbons. In the community adjacent to Love Canal, sumps discharged into sewers that emptied into the Niagara River. One county official was quoted as saying that since the toxic materials were entering the sewer system from private homes, it was the responsibility of the homeowners to stop the discharges. This early affront was an inauspicious start for the emerging relationship between the residents and their governmental representatives.

The DEC took samples from the sumps of homes adjacent to the canal, from sewers in the area, and from the surface of the former canal. While sampling, DEC staff noted strong odors of chlorinated aromatic chemicals and a black, gummy sludge coating the sumps. When the samples were analyzed, they indicated the presence of significant quantities of a variety of chlorinated hydrocarbons. During this time, the city conducted a house-to-house survey of homes adjacent to the canal and found that the chemical invasion was pervasive. Discussions were initiated by the state with the City of Niagara Falls, the school board, and Hooker to develop a plan for dealing with the problem, and to determine who was going to pay for any cleanup.

In the fall of 1977 the state requested the assistance of the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to conduct further studies of the subsurface conditions and to monitor the air in the basements of homes adjacent to the canal. The EPA representative who inspected the site found conditions to be not only unhealthy and hazardous, but unprecedented in scope. He concluded that temporary measures would only delay resolving the problems at the site, and that, since it might be years before conditions were normalized, serious thought should be given to purchasing some or all of the homes.

Nature soon aggravated the hazardous conditions at Love Canal. In what became known as the blizzard of ’77, the Niagara Falls area suffered one of the worst winters in its history. When the accumulated snow finally melted in the spring, it infiltrated the ground at Love Canal and exerted such pressure on the chemicals lying just below the surface that it accelerated their migration and surfacing.

Debbie Cerrillo, who had grown up in Niagara Falls, bought into one version of the American dream: a brand-new ranch home in her childhood neighborhood, with a large, open field at the back of her property, and a grade school on the other side. On occasion Debbie saw a ghostly green haze hanging over the open field, which was situated on the former canal, even though the rest of the area was clear. Although she thought it was strange, she paid no particular attention to it. At the beginning of the spring thaw in 1978, with snow still on the ground, Debbie went shopping on her snowmobile. On the way home, as she drove across the vacant field at the back of her property, the snowmobile suddenly got stuck in the field. Debbie got off and discovered that part of the snowmobile had sunk into a pool of black, horrid-smelling liquid that lay just below the surface of the snow. The substance got onto her gloves, and when she took off her gloves with her teeth, to try to free the snowmobile, some of it got into her mouth and made her gag. She recognized it as the same black material that had been re-appearing for several years in the basement sump of her next-door neighbor, Peter Bulka. She also recognized the smell: when her father had worked at the Hooker Electrochemical Company in Niagara Falls, the smell would linger on his clothes when he came home after his shift.

That same spring, sampling results from the DEC and the EPA revealed disturbing levels of toxic chemicals on the surface and in the groundwater. The commissioner of the State Department of Health (DOH) inspected Love Canal and found the conditions on the surface of the canal to be deplorable: an acrid chemical smell was prevalent throughout; waste drums and their chemical contents were visible; and pools of black, tarry, oily liquids were found on the surface. Especially disturbing was the widespread presence of a toxic pesticide, lindane, on the surface of the canal property that was widely used as a playground by children. Following his visit, the commissioner issued an order to the local health authorities requiring immediate action.

The city found that it did not have the resources to cope with Love Canal. Hooker, meanwhile, kept a low profile, offering no comment on reports that the toxic chemicals at its former dumping site were entering homes. Internally, Hooker managers decided to “cooperate on any technical matters on which our advice is sought and provide general background information about the site, but avoid becoming actively involved in any remedial plans.” The company indicated publicly that it would be more willing to cooperate if Hooker were insured against litigation.

The Niagara Gazette continued its coverage of events unfolding at Love Canal. The coverage eventually caught the attention of Lois Gibbs, a twenty-seven-year-old housewife who lived several blocks from the canal. Her son had recently developed unexplainable seizures after he began attending the 99th Street School. When she realized that the former dumping site being discussed in the paper was right next to her son’s school, Gibbs became alarmed. The reports of dangerous chemicals that were buried next to the school and escaping into homes and the environment provided a possible explanation for her son’s illness. Gibbs quickly requested a transfer for her son. With twisted bureaucratic logic, the superintendent told her that if her request were granted, it would be an acknowledgment to the wider public that the area was contaminated and would imply that all the children should be removed from the school. He did not transfer her son.

Gibbs, who had never actively organized anyone, started to organize everyone. She contacted a brother-in-law who was a biologist at the local state university and educated herself about the facts and issues, as well as they could be determined at that time. She knocked on doors in the neighborhood to see what others knew or suspected, and to find out what they intended to do. On one of her early rounds she met Debbie Cerrillo. After her exposure to the chemical problems at the site the preceding winter, Cerrillo was deeply concerned for her three young children, and she was not one to avoid a fight. Together they formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

In June 1978 government agencies held a public meeting to explain what was known about Love Canal. One local health official belittled the hazards from the landfill and told the residents that the devaluation of their homes because of the toxic chemicals was their own problem. Lois Gibbs attended that meeting and asked if the school was safe. When she got an evasive answer, she shot back, “Get this school down, it’s contaminated!”[2]

By July 1978 the DOH was finally able to assess the health risks for people living adjacent to the canal. Those assessments indicated that the isolated risks from even a few of the chemicals were substantial and disturbing. The basements of homes registered high levels of chemicals as did the air around the dump site. Particularly noteworthy was the high level of lindane in areas used for play by children.

Another DOH study found a notably higher rate of miscarriage and congenital malformations among those living in the southern section, and an increased risk for spontaneous abortion among the women in both the northern and southern sections. It also found significant levels of toxic fumes in these same homes. The DOH assembled the available environmental and health risk data and submitted it to a panel of outside experts for an independent review. Events were now to take a dramatic turn.

Following that independent review, the commissioner of the DOH issued a public health order on August 2, 1978, at a press conference in Albany. The commissioner reported that more than eighty chemical compounds had been identified in various samples at Love Canal, including twenty-six organic compounds in air samples from the basements of homes. Seven of the chemicals were carcinogenic in animals; one, benzene, was a known human carcinogen. Moreover, the epidemiologic study revealed an increased risk of spontaneous abortion among residents, especially among those living adjacent to the southern section, and congenital malformations among five children living adjacent to the canal. Based on these conditions, the commissioner recommended that all pregnant women and families with children under two years old living on the streets adjacent to the canal immediately relocate from their homes.

Many affected parties–government agencies, Hooker representatives, the press, and residents of the Love Canal neighborhood, including Lois Gibbs and Debbie Cerrillo–attended the press conference at which the commissioner announced his order.  The residents thought they were attending a working meeting at which the problems at Love Canal would be discussed and that they would have an opportunity to participate in the resolutions of those problems, which were affecting them more than anyone else present. When they realized that the meeting had been called only for the purpose of delivering an order for a select few to evacuate, they were furious. After the commissioner read the order, Gibbs shouted out, “You’re murdering us.” When Cerrillo heard that only pregnant women and children under two were being recommended for relocation, she got up and demanded, “What about my two-and-a-half-year old; she’s out of luck, right?”[3]

On August 3, 1978, the families subject to the DOH order started to relocate from their homes with the assistance of state agencies. On August 4, Gibbs, Cerrillo and others held a meeting to formally organize the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

New York Governor Hugh Carey contacted President Jimmy Carter and reported the events of the previous week, including the widespread risk to families in the area, and requested that the president declare an emergency. On August 7, 1978, President Carter declared a federal emergency, the first in United States history in response to an environmental condition. The federal and state governments also expanded the relocation to include the families on both sides of 97th and 99th Streets. Federal funds were committed to assisting the state in the relocation process, and the state government committed to permanently relocating all people living on both sides of the streets adjacent to the canal, and to buying their homes. Over 239 families were evacuated from Love Canal that year.

When a federal emergency was declared, some relief funds became available to begin the cleanup. In 1978 and 1979 a drain system was constructed around the canal to collect the leachate, contaminants mixed with groundwater, and divert it to a temporary treatment facility that removed the toxic properties and discharged the material to the city’s sewer system. The site was also capped with clay to prevent more water from infiltrating the canal, thereby reducing the amount of leachate.

Further studies by the state, with assistance from the residents, indicated a high rate of both miscarriages and children with congenital defects among those living along the swales, or “wet” areas around the canal. As a result of the accumulated evidence, families with pregnant women or young children, and a low-income housing project west of the canal, were temporarily relocated to nearby motels at the state’s expense.

The relocations were difficult. Families were consigned to motel rooms with two beds, a desk, a dresser, a TV, a bathroom, and cots for the kids, with little space for personal effects. Meals were eaten out. The motels were filled with families who shared the same anxiety about what awaited them when they returned home. By the end of 1979, the residents who had been temporarily relocated were allowed back in their homes.

Meanwhile, citizens continued to organize, publicize, and agitate for the permanent relocation of all those living near the canal. Cerrillo and Gibbs testified before Congress, while other residents appeared on the Phil Donahue Show. One resident attended Hooker’s annual shareholder meeting and spoke out in protest. Cerrillo shook hands with President Carter during a reelection campaign stop at Buffalo airport, where the president told her, “I’ll pray for you.”

In the spring of 1980, events once again exploded at Love Canal. The EPA undertook a preliminary study of possible chromosomal damage for people living in the area of the canal. The study was conducted without any control group, and it was intended only to serve as a basis for deciding whether a full-scale, costly study was justified. These preliminary results, which indicated that eleven of thirty-six residents had chromosomal damage, inadvertently became known to the media, forcing the government to quickly inform the residents before they heard it in the press. No matter how much the government qualified the study as tentative and incomplete, the hard, cold number of eleven out of thirty-six overwhelmed the public. The study was later subject to widespread criticism among the scientific community, and the results were considered by many to be suspect.

When the EPA study was released, it understandably scared the remaining residents. The citizens had been arguing and pleading with the government to buy out their homes so they could get out. The chromosome study gave them leverage.

The Monday after the EPA study was released, residents met at the Homeowners Association office to follow developments. As the day passed, more and more people gathered. When the press reported that the White House was not going to relocate any more residents, the crowd grew angry and frustrated. Someone poured gasoline in the form of the letters “EPA” on the lawn of an abandoned house across from the association and set it ablaze. Others blocked traffic, which drew the police to the scene.

Gibbs called two EPA representatives, a doctor and a public relations man who were in the area, and asked them to talk to the residents about the chromosome study. When she announced that the EPA representatives were coming, someone in the crowd proposed that they take them hostage, to show them how trapped the residents felt. The EPA representatives arrived and tried to address the growing crowd, but there were more shouts to take them. Gibbs informed the doctor and the PR man that they were hostages of the “Love Canal People,” and that they would not be harmed if they stayed inside. The hostages were fed homemade oatmeal cookies and sandwiches and were allowed to meet with individual members of the press inside the association offices. Gibbs called the White House and demanded the relocation of the residents before the release of the hostages. After about six hours of discussions with various officials, and with the FBI threatening to rush the crowd, the hostages were freed. Neither Gibbs nor anyone else was arrested for the action.

Within days, in May 1980, President Carter declared the second emergency at Love Canal, authorizing the federal and state governments to relocate about 700 families. Though only temporary relocation was specified in this emergency declaration, an agreement was reached in October 1980 to provide funds to buy more than 500 homes in the area and to permanently relocate those who wished to move. Over 400 residents accepted the offer; the others chose to remain.

After 1980, the state and federal governments focused on determining the impact of the chemical migration on the sewers and creeks in the area, and on how best to remedy the situation. They also undertook a study to determine whether Love Canal, after the cleanup, would again be a place where people could live and play. The study found that certain parts of the area could be habitable again, and it took over a decade to clean up the environment around the canal. Some of the homes that were evacuated in 1980 have since been sold and are once again occupied.

The United States and the State of New York sued Hooker to recover the costs of investigating and cleaning up the toxic waste site and of relocating and buying the homes of over 500 residents. The litigation started in 1979 and went on for over fifteen years. During an eight-month trial in 1990-1991 many of the details of what had happened during the years of contamination were finally revealed. In the summer of 1994, the State of New York settled its claims against the chemical company in exchange for a payment of $98 million and an agreement by the company to assume the responsibilities for monitoring the site for as long as necessary. That settlement alone cost Hooker about $130 million. The chemical company and the United States settled their claims in 1996, with the company paying the United States another $129 million. In addition, there were over 2,000 claims made against the company for personal injuries and property damage by residents. Almost all of these claims have now been settled for undisclosed amounts.

The early findings indicating that pregnant women and newborns were at risk from exposure to the chemicals at Love Canal have been confirmed by a recent study of residents living near another infamous toxic waste site, the Lipari Landfill in New Jersey. This study found a significantly lower average birth weight among residents closest to the landfill, compared to the general population. These infants were also twice as likely to be born prematurely. Both low birth weight and prematurity are known to contribute to a host of other medical problems later in life.

With some of the proceeds from the settlement, New York State began a long-term study of the former residents of Love Canal to assess the health effects from living near a toxic waste site. An interim report in 2006 found that, consistent with the initial assessments, there was a positive association between women living along the canal during pregnancy and adverse reproductive outcomes, including low birth weight and congenital malformation. In addition, the study found a higher ratio of female to male births among these women, noting a similar finding to those exposed to dioxins at Seveso, Italy.

Debbie Cerrillo now lives in northern New York and eschews any publicity. Peter Bulka died several years ago. Lois Gibbs founded an important environmental organization, the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, and continues to fight aggressively for the protection of the environment.

The other families that were affected by the Love Canal disaster have tried to move on with their lives. During the relocation, some families were moved to a nearby trailer park. Several years ago it was discovered that the trailer park was on top of a toxic waste site. The people in the trailer park were relocated once again. Another family relocated from Love Canal to Connecticut, only to discover in 1993 that they were two blocks away from a toxic waste site with dangerously high levels of asbestos, lead, and PCBs.

Recently the New York State Legislature dissolved the agency that had been established to redevelop Love Canal, and in 2004 the EPA removed it from the federal Superfund list. Renovated homes with well-kept lawns, bicycles, toys and other signs of family life fill the area north of Colvin Boulevard, now named Black Creek Village. The canal is now a grass-covered mound bordered by mature trees with a small building off to one side, all of it surrounded by a chain-link fence. At first glance, it appears to be an inviting play area. Yet underneath the grassy mound, thousands of tons of toxic materials are undergoing chemical treatment before being discharged to the local wastewater treatment plant. East of the site lie abandoned homes and wooded, vacant lots where homes once stood, with grass growing on what remains of the sidewalks and streets. The former canal and the abandoned area will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future, serving as a memorial to our failure to protect our environment from toxic chemicals, and to the courage and fortitude of Lois Gibbs, Debbie Cerrillo, Peter Bulka, and the others who taught us how not to forget those who are deeply and personally affected by that failure.


[1] Deposition testimony of Leonard Bryant, Trial Exhibit 1697,  246-247; trial transcript page 4592, cited in United States of America and State of New York v. Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corporation, et al., [cite March 17, 1994]
[2] Adeline Gordon Levine, Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People (Lexington, Mass.: Lexington Books, 1982), 29.
[3] Levine, Love Canal, 34.


Originally published in Robert Emmet Hernan, This Borrowed Earth: Lessons from the 15 Worst Environmental Disasters Around the World, a book telling the stories of environmental disasters throughout the world, published in English in February 2010 by PalgraveMacmillan and in Chinese in December 2011 by China Machine Press.

Hernan was an Assistant Attorney General and trial counsel for the State of New York in the Love Canal trial against the chemical company in 1990-91.


Editor’s Note:

Controversy continues to haunt Love Canal.  Recently some abandoned properties in the area east of the canal, previously restricted to commercial or industrial uses, have been sold for homes.  One person living in one of the homes has reported discovering thick tar-like, black substances in his basement when he replaced a sump pump.  What if any risks remain to be determined.

See Jesse McKinley, “The Neighbor No One Told Him About: A Former Toxic Waste Site,” The New York Times (12 June 2023).


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