Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood: The Love Canal DisasterWatch the videoSee the video and lesson plan
TEXT ON SCREEN: August 2, 1978
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): ROGER MUDD: From 1947 until 1952, the Hooker Chemical Company used the Love Canal section of Niagara Falls as a dumping site for toxic waste.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-21-80): DAN RATHER: President Carter declared a state of emergency today in the Love Canal area of New York’s Niagara Falls where toxic chemicals were discovered oozing from the ground.
NARRATION: That discovery in a Niagara Falls neighborhood triggered an environmental battle that played out on national television and became one of the most iconic in U.S. history.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS: THE KILLING GROUND, 8-21-80): LOVE CANAL RESIDENTS: We want out! We want out!
NARRATION: After the federal government finally evacuated hundreds of families, new laws were introduced to prevent future Love Canals.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-21-95): DAN RATHER: Occidental Chemical Company agreed to pay $129 million…
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-21-80): LOVE CANAL RESIDENT: My three kids were born with birth defects, my wife’s had cancer…
NARRATION: More than three decades later, what happened to residents exposed to these chemicals? And what happened to the place that came to symbolize the nightmare of toxic waste in America?
LOVE CANAL: A LEGACY OF DOUBT
NARRATION: In the spring 1978, a Niagara Falls housewife read a newspaper story about her neighborhood, known as Love Canal.
LOIS GIBBS (FORMER LOVE CANAL RESIDENT): It described 20,000 tons of chemicals buried three blocks from my home, that these were very toxic chemicals and I was just in shock.
NARRATION: The chemicals had been dumped in an old canal by the Hooker Chemical Company in the 1940s and early 1950s and then buried. Now they were leaking into some of the homes closest to the canal.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): REPORTER: For several years chemicals have been seeping into the basements of a number of houses, including this one. The evidence is always there.
LOIS GIBBS: There was a report that talked about the different chemicals getting into people’s homes, getting into their gardens, their backyards.
MIKE BASILE (U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY): The people that were living there were smelling these odors in their basements. Many of the children claimed that they had skin rashes and before you know it there was a concern.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): REPORTER: There have been instances of birth defects and miscarriages among neighborhood families.
NARRATION: The state began testing the neighborhood’s air, soil and ground water and made an announcement for the homes closest to the canal.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): ROGER MUDD: The New York State Health Department recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of two immediately move out of the area.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): REPORTER: How many chemicals have been identified as being underground here? ERNEST GEDEON: So far we know of 88 specific chemicals that have been identified. REPORTER: And of those 88, how many are suspected of causing cancer? ERNEST GEDEON: I think the number is 11.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): REPORTER: You could see the fear on some of their faces today as men, women and children gathered for blood tests to determine whether those here have developed abnormalities.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 8-2-78): LOIS HEISNER: I am really, really afraid. We have decided we’re going to get out, one way or the other, but right now, you know, you just can’t jump and where are we going to go?
LOIS GIBBS: We were a working class community. We didn’t have money to just up and move and abandon our house, so we organized a Love Canal Homeowner Association, which was all of our neighbors.
ADELINE GORDON LEVINE (AUTHOR, “LOVE CANAL: SCIENCE, POLITICS, AND PEOPLE”): Lois Gibbs was trying to start an organization. And she quickly learned how important the media was to be their voice.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS: THE KILLING GROUND, 8-21-80): LOVE CANAL RESIDENTS: We want out! We want out!
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS: THE KILLING GROUND, 8-21-80): LOVE CANAL RESIDENT: Would you please tell me, do I let my three year-old stay?
NARRATION: New York Governor Hugh Carey ordered the state to buy the first two rows of homes along the canal, and those residents moved out. But Lois Gibbs and some seven hundred other families living outside the evacuated area were told they were not in imminent danger.
JOSEPH RETTON (FORMER LOVE CANAL RESIDENT): They put up a fence, and every time I went in and out of the driveway I seen the fence and I was told that the people on that side of the fence had to leave and I had to stay, which didn’t make sense to me at all.
NARRATION: Over the next two years, some of the remaining homeowners continued to battle for relocation, saying living near the polluted canal was putting their family’s health at risk.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS: THE KILLING GROUND, 8-2-80): LOVE CANAL RESIDENT: I lost a baby before it was even born; my next door neighbor had a stillborn; her son is sick; her son is sick. How many more kids have to be sick?
NARRATION: Some of the protesters used provocative tactics, such as burning effigies of Jimmy Carter, his wife, and daughter.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 5-17-80): JANE PAULEY: Today the Environmental Protection Agency announced…
NARRATION: But things changed in the spring of 1980. The EPA had conducted a preliminary study that indicated that residents may have increased chromosomal abnormalities. But before the agency could confirm the findings or inform the residents, the study was leaked.
ALLEN MAZUR (AUTHOR, “A HAZARDOUS INQUIRY: THE RASHOMON EFFECT AT LOVE CANAL”): EPA was in a panic because they knew that this awful chromosome study was gonna hit the newspapers. So they had an emergency team rush out to Niagara Falls to talk to these people.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS: THE KILLING GROUND, 8-21-80): EPA REPRESENTATIVE: We found two particular characteristics in this study which are ominous.
LOIS GIBBS: Environmental Protection Agency had done some blood work on some residents, and they said they had an unusually high number of chromosome breakages. And higher risk of cancer, birth defects, or genetic damage in our children. People gathered at the Love Canal Homeowners’ office, and they started shouting and screaming, so when the EPA officials came over, the residents were so angry, that they decided that if it’s so safe to live at Love Canal, these two officials can live here and they’re not gonna get evacuated until we get evacuated.
NARRATION: The standoff lasted just five hours, but the point was made.
LOIS GIBBS: President Carter was running for reelection, and this was making headline news across the country. As a result of that sit-in and those protest and the hostage holdings, the federal government agreed to evacuate everybody at Love Canal, buying their homes, so we were out.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-21-80): ANCHOR: The residents of Love Canal celebrated today…
LOIS GIBBS: We got relief. We got safety. We got our lives back.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 5-21-80): ANCHOR: 700 hundred families started leaving Love Canal this afternoon.
LOIS GIBBS: It was the moment. It was the moment of relief in a sense that we’re free.
ARCHIVAL (“LOIS GIBBS AND THE LOVE CANAL” MOVIE, 1989): MARSHA MASON: Remember that we stood up up here at Love Canal, ordinary law abiding people. And we weren’t afraid!
NARRATION: Following the evacuation, Gibbs became the public face of a movement to clean up toxic waste dumped by companies across the country. To deal with this pollution, superfund legislation was enacted.
LOIS GIBBS: Superfund was established so if another Love Canal came on the horizon there would be money there, you’d go in, you could do the testing, you could do the cleanup, and then you could go after the responsible parties.
NARRATION: While sometimes criticized as costly and bureaucratic, superfund has led to the remediation of nearly four hundred toxic sites. Love Canal was among the first addressed, but it took nearly two decades and cost more than $350 million. Because the landfill turned out to be too big, too toxic, and too expensive to move, it was capped in clay and surrounded by a drainage system.
MIKE BASILE: It was a black eye, when it occurred in the late seventies. But the community came together and realized that the stigma from what took place was starting to diminish. So, in ‘88 a decision was rendered that the area was suitable for rehabilitation.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 3-15-90): WILLIAM BRODERICK: The city wants to put Love Canal behind it. It’s given Niagara Falls a pretty bad name and we don’t think we deserve it.
NARRATION: Although the area around the old landfill was fenced off, homes in the surrounding area were refurbished and offered at below market price. Nearly all the homes found a buyer.
ARCHIVAL (NBC TV NATION, 7-19-94): MICHAEL MOORE: I just read about Love Canal, you know, up there in Niagara Falls? STEWART SEIGEL: I sure remember Love Canal. MICHAEL MOORE: Fifteen years ago they had to move everybody out because of toxic waste. Now they’re selling homes there again. STEWART SEIGEL: I wasn’t aware that they were selling homes there again. MICHAEL MOORE: Don’t you think we could pick up something kinda … cheap?
NARRATION: The repopulation was met with protest by activists, including Lois Gibbs, who said the area was still not safe.
LOIS GIBBS: They never took any chemicals out. The 20,000 tons of chemicals still remain in the center of Love Canal.
MIKE BASILE: I think there is a legacy of doubt because people think that some day the landfill will leak. But we have monitoring wells around this site, so red flags would go up if there was a problem. The homes around Love Canal, especially the homes that were rehabilitated where people are living there today, is probably one of the safest places on the planet to live.
NARRATION: But what happened to the residents who lived there 35 years ago? The leaked EPA report was a preliminary study; a follow-up study revealed that Love Canal residents had no higher rate of chromosomal abnormalities than the rest of Niagara County. Over the years, some studies have indicated a higher rate of birth defects and some cancers among former residents, but a direct link between the leaking canal and the long term development of serious diseases has not been established.
ALLEN MAZUR: To find out what hurt a relatively few people because of the myriad of environmental insults that are around, it’s almost impossible to do. These are intrinsically difficult problems to evaluate scientifically.
JOSEPH RETTON: I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer three years ago. And I’m stage four cancer. It went to my liver. I worked at chemical plants. I was exposed to Agent Orange. I lived in Love Canal. I don’t know where my cancer comes from.
NARRATION: Thirty-five years after Love Canal captured the national spotlight, the story has resurfaced.
ARCHIVAL (WIVB-TV NEWS 4 BUFFALO, 1-21-11): ANCHOR: New concerns have emerged from the Love Canal era…
NARRATION: In 2011, a city crew repairing a sewer line discovered a pocket of chemical waste less than half a mile from the landfill. State and EPA investigators said there was no danger; the waste was isolated, had not leaked from the landfill, and was believed to be leftover from the original cleanup. But six families in the surrounding neighborhood have filed lawsuits. They say the discovery exposed them to harmful chemicals, and now believe the landfill itself is not properly contained and is damaging their health. The battle over Love Canal continues.