June 02, 2021

Love Canal Revisited

Posted June 2, 2021 by Ed Tormey

It was 41 years ago that one of the more bizarre events in U.S. environmental history took place:  two U.S. EPA officials were “kidnapped” by an angry environmental group in a working class neighborhood in New York.  As many of you know, the town was Niagara Falls, and the neighborhood was Love Canal.  The resulting hostage situation and other events surrounding Love Canal are detailed in Allen Mazur’s book:  A Hazardous Inquiry (1998). Mr. Mazur’s book looks at this crisis through the eyes (and testimony) of a number of affected parties, including Hooker Chemical, the Niagara Falls School Board, local community activists, the New York State Board of Health, and the media. 

In the 1940s and ’50s, Hooker Chemical had buried several thousand tons of industrial waste in the Love Canal area.  At the time, Hooker’s burial of these wastes in an abandoned canal was probably better than could be expected under the existing industrial standards, but leaching soon occurred.  In 1953, the Niagara Falls Board of Education bought the canal parcel from Hooker for a token payment of one dollar.  (Hooker did disclose that chemical wastes were buried in the area.) The school board then built a school above a portion of the old canal, while developers constructed single-family homes and a low-income housing development. 

It is likely that each of these projects only exacerbated the ongoing leaching of waste material.  By 1978, pools of oily substances sat atop the old canal, and U.S. EPA detected the presence of hazardous vapors in the basements of homeowners.  Within the next two years, the state and federal government spent almost 40 million dollars to relocate residents from approximately 1,000 homes.  This occurred in two phases: those in close proximity to the canal (“inner rings” residents) were relocated in 1978; after two years of intense campaigning, those in the “outer rings” were also moved. 

The first relocation occurred in response to the panic caused by the New York State Health Commissioner’s finding that families on the inner rings with pregnant women or with children under two should temporarily move from their homes.  Under pressure, five days later, Governor Hugh Carey promised residents that the state would purchase these homes instead.  The second relocation was precipitated by a leaked federal study that found that a significant percentage of residents in the outer rings had suffered chromosome damage.  This again led to panic, and when the U.S. EPA attempted to undertake damage control by sending two of its employees to the area, the aforementioned “hostage situation” took place.  This time it was President Carter, not the governor, who stepped in and offered to relocate affected residents.  

Altogether, some $300 million was spent at Love Canal, including expenditures for studies, remediation, and relocation of residents.  And it was Love Canal that served as the impetus for the passage of CERCLA in late 1980. Ironically, the federal government ultimately used this statute to hold Hooker Chemical liable in the Love Canal cleanup as a “past owner” at the facility. 

Love Canal has earned its place as one of the major drivers of environmental regulation in the United States.  But not everyone agrees that the Love Canal response was worth the money or the notoriety it received.  Critics of the decisions made at Love Canal are apt to describe them as a response to media, political and local environmental group actions rather than science [link].  Mr. Mazur notes that the decision to relocate homeowners came only after a media blitz involving national press like the New York Times.  He also wonders whether President Carter made his decision to relocate residents with the 1980 election in mind (and winning Governor’s Carey’s support).  Moreover, there were residents at Love Canal who were gaining media attention for their outspoken language and behavior (including the EPA hostage situation).  Were these residents intentionally escalating the seriousness of the health risks at Love Canal? 

As for the science, Mr. Mazur states that important decisions were made at Love Canal without regard for any credible scientific risk assessment and looked “more like a prize fight than a search for truth.”  Indeed, subsequent studies at Love Canal failed to demonstrate any significant differences between the residents and control groups.  He includes a quote from then U.S. EPA Deputy Administrator Barbara Blum who said that Love Canal was “the worst public policy decision made during my four years with the government.”  Mr. Mazur concludes his book by conceding that because of all the public attention given to this site, and the failure of officials to de-escalate the fears of residents, a government buyout was the only logical solution.

Even those commentaries that defend the relocation of the Love Canal residents conclude that government failed to act appropriately [link].  Mistakes made by government officials were numerous, with the most serious one being their loss of control over the risk-related messaging at the site. 

With all our experience gained over the last 40 years, could we do a better job today handling a new version of Love Canal?  I am thinking particularly of our response to emerging contaminants such as PFAS.  One can Google “PFAS” and become anxiety ridden in a few seconds.  Is government still operating under what some scholars call a “Catastrophe Model” whereby the government fails to act properly before a catastrophe, and then overreacts following the crisis [link]?  Do we judge “good science” as that which is helping our side and “bad science” as that which is helping the other?  Do we have the tools to distinguish confidently real hazards of low-level toxic exposures from false alarms? 

I can confidently say the answer to these questions is: maybe.