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8.11: Love Canal Case Study

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    Learning Objectives
    • Research the history and structure of the Love Canal.
    • Record the responsible polluters of the Love Canal.
    • Classify the chemicals that were dumped and correlate this to the community's health issues.
    • Create a timeline of chemicals that were discovered and effects on the environment.
    • Summarize the reactions made by the community to the state and federal governments.
    • Comment on the clean-up procedures of the Love Canal.
    • Highlight the components of the CERCLA Act and Superfund Program.
    • Summarize the current status of the Love Canal.

    History of The Love Canal

    In the later part of the 19th century, William T. Love envisioned connecting the Niagara River to Lake Ontario by ways of digging a canal. He dreamed of providing electricity to this area via hydroelectric power. He never completed this project and the unfinished canal became a swimming hole for recreational use. By the 1920's, the City of Niagara falls began dumping waste into the canal. As the years went by, the United States Army poured various hazardous substances into the Love Canal as well. In 1941, Hooker Chemical Company acquired Love Canal, drained it, and continued to bury over 20,000 tons of chemicals over the next 10 years. Eventually, the EPA identified over 200 different chemicals within the canal. Some of these included dioxin, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs),lindane, benzene, toluene, and corrosive chemicals.

    Hooker Chemical clay capped the Love Canal and then sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1.00. As stated within the deed, Hooker would not claim any responsibility for future damages due to the prescience of buried chemicals. On May 7, 1953, the school board accepted this policy, decided to build a school on the property, and then sold the remaining land for residential use. Eventually, a public school (99th Street School) was constructed on the former landfill site. Around 200 homes were erected along the canal banks and 1000 homes were built in the surrounding area.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Love Canal pre-1978. (Copyright;

    Chemical Contamination of a Community

    By the fall of 1976, residents of this area reported chemicals seeping into their basements and drums of chemicals rising to the surface of the filled in canal. Health officials advised them to avoid their basements. Heavy rains transported chemicals throughout the area to the Niagara River. Residents of the area noted high rates of birth defects and health issues. Informal and formal studies of the children born in this area were affected negatively by the chemicals. The Niagara Falls Gazette published stories about the substances buried in the canal. Lois Gibbs, a resident of the area, took note of these publications and wondered if her son's health issues could be attributed to these chemicals. Her five year-old son had developed liver and urinary tract problems, asthma, and epilepsy after he started attending the school that was built on top of the chemical dump. She requested her son be transferred to a different school away from the canal. Her request was denied and she began a campaign of educator and informing others about the happenings of the Love Canal.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Protest about the Love Canal contamination by a resident, ca. 1978 or so.(; File:Love Canal protest.jpg - Wikimedia Commons)

    Gibbs and her community gathered information regarding health problems within the Love Canal area. They noted a large number of miscarriages, birth defects, and other illnesses. They rallied their concerns to the media and caught the attention of U.S. Representative John J. LaFlace and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In April of 1978, the New York State Commissioner orders the County Health Department to restrict access to the Love Canal Area and to start health studies. Between May of 1978 and the beginning of August of 1978, residents of this area continued to remain at the Love Canal. Testing was done to determine the identity of the chemicals. Blood samples were taken of people who lived in the community. The New York State Governor signed an emergency order that would appropriate $500,000 for medical studies of area residents. On August 2, 1978, the New York State Health Commissioner declared a state of emergency. The 99th Street School was closed. Women and children under the age of two were encouraged to evacuate.

    Federal Response to the Love Canal Disaster

    On August 7, 1978, President Jimmy Carter provides funding to the State of New York to allow 236 families to leave the Love Canal. The cost of relocation would cost approximately 10 million dollars. During the late 1970's, another 54 families wished to relocate from the outskirts of the canal. These residents were denied and protesting continues. By February of 1979, pregnant women and younger children in this group of people were temporarily relocated. Gibbs and her homeowners associated continued to push the federal government to evacuate more houses that were outside the original evacuation zone.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Love Canal evacuated houses. (; LOVE CANAL | Superfund Site Profile | Superfund Site Information | US EPA)

    In May of 1980, the federal government purchased these remaining homes after a leaked medical report regarding chromosomal damages of Love Canal residents. Houses closest to the canal were dismantled in 1982. EPA removed the topsoil, installed drainage pipes to protect the groundwater, and installed a drainage plant to process any liquefied chemicals. The canal and surrounding areas were covered with plastic and clay capped. The majority of 20,000 tons of chemicals remain in the Love Canal.

    EPA Superfund Program

    In December of 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA). This act is often referred to as the Superfund Program. By pre-taxing the chemical and petroleum industries, the federal government created a trust fund for cleaning up abandoned or uncontrolled hazardous areas. The goals of the Superfund Program are to clean-up contaminated areas, find and requires responsible parties to clean-up these sites, involve the surrounding community during the process, and if possible regenerate Superfund Sites. Under CERCLA, the EPA has constructed two types of response actions to chemical dumping. The first of these is short-term removal which provides quick action to releases or threatened releases of toxic materials. In contrast, the long-term remedial response action addresses contaminated areas that are "serious, but not immediately life threatening" The most serious of these sites are placed on the National Priorities List (NPL). Click here to view the current NPL.

    Love Canal Clean-up

    EPA's Superfund program providing funding for the decontamination of Love Canal. This involved removing soil, installing drainage pipes to protect the groundwater, and constructing drainage plant to process any liquefied chemicals. The canal and surrounding areas were covered with plastic and clay capped. The majority of 20,000 tons of chemicals remain in the Love Canal. In 1995, Occidental Chemical Company (formerly known as Hooker Chemical) was required to pay Superfund $102 million dollars for clean-up. They also reimbursed The Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) $27 million dollar for relocation of the Love Canal residents. An additional 8 million dollars was awarded both the Superfund Programs and FEMA by the United States Army (for dumping military chemicals) and the state of New York paid $98 million to the EPA as well. Total clean-up cost for the Love Canal was estimated to be $275 million.

    The Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act (SARA)

    In 1986, expanded the Superfund Project to include more tasks and changes. SARA would suggest innovative treatment techniques and permanent solutions. State and Federal governments would work together together under current laws and policies of each. More community involvement would be encouraged as to how the site would be cleaned up and remediated. The original trust fund of $1.6 billion dollars would be increased to $8.5 billion. More funding would be directed to studying how toxic chemicals affect humans and the environment.


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    This page titled 8.11: Love Canal Case Study is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Elizabeth Gordon.

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