AN EARLY ENVIRONMENTALIST SCARE CAMPAIGN:
LOVE CANAL REVISITED
By Alan Caruba
In the late 1970s, Love Canal had become synonymous with corporate evil and a threat to the lives of some 900 families. President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency that led to the evacuation of those families and the bulldozing of an elementary school and two streets on the Canal over which or adjacent to where they had been built. Years before, Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corporation had used the abandoned Canal, with the full knowledge of Niagara Falls City leaders, to dump 21,800 tons of chemical byproducts.
Despite that, in 1957, the City had punched a sewer line through the Canal walls, thus allowing wastes from the dump to seep throughout the neighborhood sewer system. The City’s Board of Education, which bought the site in 1953, was aware of the hazards that lay beneath the subsurface construction, but deliberately ignored the problem and built a school.
Niagara Falls, despite its fame as a destination for newlyweds and other tourists, was actually more dependent for its local economy on the chemical industry and, in the 1950s, if you flew over, you could actually see the smog that covered it with a gray-brown cloud.
“Chemical Row” along Buffalo Avenue, skirting the southern edge of the City, was the area’s larger employer and evoked a great deal of civic pride. The segment of the abandoned Love Canal had been chosen by Hooker Chemical because its soil was a form of impermeable clay and there was only a sparse population in the area. That was before the baby boom that followed World War II began to demand more housing and more schools.
On October 16, 1952, Hooker donated the land to the Board of Education for $1.00, after unsuccessfully trying to get the property restricted for use only as a park. Failing to get agreement, Hooker insisted on a deed restriction that would warn all future property owners of the presence of dangerous chemicals. All kinds of construction, including the sanitary sewer noted above would follow. In 1968, the New York State Department of Transportation disturbed still more of the buried chemicals during the construction of an expressway.
By 1978, a series of articles by Michael Brown, a reporter for the Niagara Gazette, set events in motion that led to Love Canal becoming the symbol, not of the failure of City fathers to act responsibly, but of Hooker Chemical & Plastic Corporation’s alleged complicity. Environmentalists had a field day with the story and it became an element in any number of similar scare campaigns to frighten Americans about chemical storage dumps, radon, and asbestos.
The media was — and continues to be — complicit in all of the hysteria. However, the $3 million study has found no relationship between having had a home in the Love Canal area or of having attended school there, despite the fact that, by the 1960s and 1970s, contaminated groundwater was leaching into back yards and the school grounds. As the State Health Department reported in 2001, there was no greater incidence of cancer among the people who formerly lived in the Love Canal area than for any other comparable group of upstate New Yorkers.
Love Canal, the famed pit of environmental pestilence, was remarkably benign.
One would hope the public would get a bit more savvy about these scare campaigns, whether they are leveled against the chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry, or any other industry said to exist solely for the purpose of killing all its customers. The fact that people today still think of Love Canal as a place that caused widespread disease and death is a travesty.
Love Canal, the symbol of corporate evil, was and is a lie. It began with the failure of the City fathers and the Board of Education to act responsibly. It escalated, thanks to the hysteria drummed up by local environmentalists.
It is comparable to all the lies you hear and read daily, perpetrated by environmentalists who thrive on scare campaigns. Remember that the next time someone glibly refers to Love Canal or global warming. You are being duped. Again.
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