Updated 02/03/09

...and the Gods wept


The Love Canal surely ranks high on any intelligent person's list of human foul-ups. The events leading up to the environmental "disaster" are as complex as can be imagined, and the culmination of the events leave most persons scratching their collective heads and wondering what the true story really is. It is likely the many of the important decisions were made under circumstances that we will never be made party to, and that the actual "villains" will never be clearly defined. I have attempted to impartially review data and reports from "both sides" and have tried to sift through the volumes of conflicting information to come up with my "best guess" of the events. Look upon this as an historical docu-drama with the following exception: none of the names have been changed to protect anybody. A brief summary of the situation is as follows:

Late 1800's: A re-united nation and a hunger for prosperity and the good life prompt any and all to move into the future as rapidly as possible. Much of the industrialization which fueled the massive growth of the time came from the St. Lawrence Seaway area of the United States, where ample supplies of the raw materials needed for industrial growth were available. Transportation of materials and finished goods was facilitated by the navigable waterways of the region. Where nature had inadvertently neglected to supply a route, the engineers and construction firms of the area were more than happy to build canals to link otherwise separate waterways.


1884: William Love begins construction of a "power canal" in the Niagara Falls area of upstate New York for the dual purpose of transportation and power generation for the ever-increasing population. Unfortunately, Mr. Love's vision was cut short by depression and other economic unpleasantries, and the final excavation never exceeded 3000 feet in total length. As time passed, the unfinished canal filled with water and ultimately did serve two purposes: a swimming hole in the summer and a skating rink in the winter. Life was wonderful, and birds sang in every tree. The only persons unhappy with the situation were the stockholders of the power company which held title to the hole.


1942: Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation enters into an agreement with the power company to use the unfinished canal for the disposal of industrial waste (it should be noted that Hooker was not the first to use the hole for the disposal of unwanted materials—all big holes beg to be filled with something). In preparation for the containment of the toxic materials, Hooker lined the canal with "impermeable" concrete. Hooker took legal possession of the property in 1947, and continued to dump waste material into the site until 1954. In this time, an estimated 20,000 tons of high level toxic waste were deposited into the concrete-lined canal.

A total of 248 assorted chemicals were buried at the site, including: the pesticide hexachlorocyclohexane, chlorobenzenes, chlorinated hydrocarbons, benzene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, methylene chloride, benzene hexachloride, phosphorous, and polychlorinated biphenyls. In addition, it is estimated that approximately 130 pounds of dioxin were buried in Love Canal (dioxin is remarkably toxic: 3 ounces are reported to have the ability to kill in excess of one million humans).

It is important to note that the environmental consciousness of the public was essentially non-existent at this time, and Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation was a major employer in the area. There was little, if any, public dissent. There are even reports that local children continued to use the "lake" as a swimming hole during the long, dry New York summers...


Early 1950's: Hooker suspends the dumping of hazardous waste materials at the Love Canal site and takes measures to seal the waste dump "forever." In addition to the original concrete lining, Hooker installed an "impermeable" ceramic and clay cap over the entire site. At this point all toxic materials were "permanently" sealed within this concrete, clay, and ceramic tomb, and the area was restored to natural grade. William Love's original dream was now no more than a soccer and baseball field for the multitude of kids populating the area.

The population of the Love Canal region continued to expand, and the city fathers began looking to areas which they could use as building sites for schools, shopping centers, and the other necessary amenities of modern life. The soccer field at Love Canal must have been a pretty impressive chunk of undeveloped land, and it is clear that the Municipal Powers That Be were determined to take possession of the site and use it as needed to accommodate the rapidly expanding population. Documents from the time indicate that Hooker attempted to retain title to the site, claiming that the toxicity of the materials made the area unsafe for any and all public use. Additional documents also indicate that the local school board threatened Hooker with an "eminent domain" lawsuit if they did not relinquish possession of the prime, undeveloped land. Under such duress, Hooker, who must have been more than willing to part with the problem anyway, finally sold the land to the Niagara Falls School District for one dollar. Developments proceeded.


1950's and 1960's: Let the good times roll! The baby boomers moved into the area, and began developing the Love Canal site itself. Along with homes, streets, and utilities, one elementary school was ultimately built on the site, with another on the edge. Portions of the area were re-graded, homes with basements were built, trenches were dug, sewers were installed. Oops. The "impermeable" lining was breached several (many) times, with the hopes of containing the waste "forever" becoming more and more a pipe dream every time another backhoe encountered clay or concrete. As the destruction of the "impermeable cap" proceeded, the remaining concrete walls became a giant pool, which ultimately filled and overflowed, contaminating the local groundwater on all sides of the canal, including local water wells. Contamination ultimately surfaced in neighboring lakes and streams. People got sick - not just a little sick, but the kind of sick that a doctor couldn't fix. But, hey - people get sick all over.


1970's: Contaminated waters continued to leak from the concrete-lined waste facility, and the occurrence of serious medical disorders continued to rise in this suburban paradise. The beginnings of a public awareness was seen in the area, with concerned moms, dads, and public health officials wondering why the Love Canal area seemed to have so many adults with nasty health problems... and so many weird kids. Formal investigations began in the late 1970's "to determine the nature and extent of the dangers."

In August of 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area, paving the way for federal funds to relocate the affected families. Two hundred families were immediately relocated, with an additional 500 families moved by 1981 due to "uncertainties about the nature and extent of the risks at Love Canal."


1980: The 93rd Street school is closed "because of health concerns related to the potentially contaminated fill material."


This is only a brief summary - obviously there is much more. After selecting roles for the class, your task will be to research your portion of this problem, and be prepared to participate in a "public meeting" next time we meet. Information is available from many sources, including the Internet, the library, books, and magazines.


The cast:

Water Quality Control Board representatives - report and describe the contamination problems

Medical representatives - relate medical findings

Hooker Chemical Corporation representatives - describe the mitigation efforts, and complete support the company and its attempts at responsible disposal of waste materials

Niagara Falls School Board - describe and defend decisions to use the Love Canal area for public school facilities

EPA representatives - your basic bureaucrats demanding a fix (at any cost)

City Engineer - the voice of reality concerning what can and cannot be done

The Mayor and staff - worried about the city (and re-election in 5 months). The staff includes the city's legal council, and the mayor's Public Relations dude - worried about his mayor's image (and re-election).

Concerned citizens - some with deformed kids, etc.




GeoMan's Home Page | RCC Index | Secondary Geology Index

You are GeoManiac number since April 1, 1997