Thursday, May 5, 2016

The History and Legacy of Love Canal

Requesting the book Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present by Richard S. Newman was personal. I have lived near two toxic waste sites left by Hooker Chemicals.

I was born in Tonawanda, NY an old industrialized area along the Niagara River. My hometown dump contains radioactive waste from the Manhattan Project. Just down river near the city of Niagara Falls, Hooker Chemicals took advantage of an unfinished canal to dump industrial waste.

The canal had been part of William T. Love's plan to create a Model City. The chemical industrialist envisioned a self-contained city with homes and parks. Clean, hydroelectric power was to come from an artificial falls. A canal from the Niagara River would be built to divert water over another section of the Niagara escarpment. Love mismanaged his money. All he accomplished was to leave a big ditch.

The city of Niagara Falls needed to expand and bought the land. A community of homes and a school was built over the filled-in canal. The young families living in Love Canal believed they were living the American Dream. Their dream turned into a nightmare.

They noticed basement seepage, chemical odors, rocks that burst like fireworks, grass that left chemical burns, and a high rate of miscarriages. Their complaints were unheeded. Housewives turned into activists. It was the first grass roots movement for environmental justice.

It took years for government leadership to act. The activists influenced the passage of environmental laws and in 1980 the creation of the Superfund for hazardous waste remediation. (Which under President Reagen was already being weakened with reduced funding in the battle between what is good for business vs. what is best for the people.) Love Canal has become the poster child for American environmental disasters.

I wrote about organizer and environmental activist Lois Gibbs and Love Canal at:

America's toxic past is never 'in the past'. The Environmental Protection Agency states that one-quarter of all Americans live within five miles of a Superfund site, the worst toxic dumps in the nation.

Consider my own history.

My family had moved from Tonawanda in 1963 when I was ten, several years after the first basement seepage was reported in Love Canal. President Carter approved emergency financial aid to Love Canal the year I graduated from university.

When my son was a tot we moved from Philadelphia to a small Michigan town where a chain link fence separates a toxic waste site from a park with a little flowing stream. An elementary school is on the other side.

We moved again. Our church needed to expand. They bought adjacent land then discovered the business had left toxic waste. They took out loans to supplement Federal aid to clean up the site. It took nine years. Half the land was sold for a charter school and senior housing.

We moved again, to a city on a lake  that fed into Lake Michigan, with a picturesque marina, sand dune beaches and a light house near by. The lake had been foully polluted by a tannery and the clean up had been going on for decades. The town was also home to Michigan's worst toxic waste site, left by Hooker Chemicals. Montague, like Niagara, had a massive salt mine. The rise of  a chemical center brought much needed jobs to the area. And a sad legacy. A woman in our church lost a child to a rare cancer. She began collecting stories of other cancer victims. Days after moving in, I met a neighbor while walking our dog. She said three dogs on the street had died of cancer.

My retirement home is a half mile from a 'spill'. Superfund money is limited and spent on the 'worst' sites. The rest are just fenced off.

Newman grew up in the Buffalo area, and like my family, visiting Niagara Falls was a typical family day trip. He worked on this book over a long time, writing Freedom's Prophet about former slave and African Methodist Church founder Richard Allen in the meantime. (A book I would love to read!)
Niagara Falls, taken by my dad on his last trip home
The book covers:

  • The first European explorers, who identified it's economical potential
  • The rise of the 'chemical century' and industrialization of the area with particular attention to Elon Huntington Hooker, including information based on new archival research
  • The rise of citizen environmentalism in the 1970s and 80s
  • The partial resettlement of the Love Canal neighborhood in the 1990
  • The legacy of Love Canal

I appreciated the book's inclusiveness, especially the 'big picture' of the Niagara Frontier's industrial history. Love Canal is a story of failure and success, of how citizens can alter policy. It raises issues of responsibility and the role of government in monitoring industry. Can we contain the toxins we create for the products we demand? And what becomes of the land that has been poisoned? Montague residents worried that people will forget and build on the Hooker toxic waste site. Well, they did at Love Canal.

I received a free ebook through NetGalley in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

Love Canal
by Richard S Newman
Oxford University Press
Publication Date May 4, 2016
$29.95 hard cover
ISBN: 9780195374834

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