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The big sleazy: Love Canal ten years later.

For the residents of Love Canal, it was bad enough dealing with 21,800 tons of toxic ooze. Then they had to deal with the bureaucrats.

"The cap" is a masterpiece of engineering understatement. From the comer of Frontier Avenue and tooth Street, it appears to be nothing more than a huge expanse of turf, gently mounded toward the center. Even the brick building on the other side hardly seems intrusive. No doubt it's the groundskeeper's shop.

Visitors don't immediately grasp the significance, says Joann Hale, whose house is buried along with 236 others beneath "the cap," That's why she takes guests around to the opposite comer, the one farthest in from the streets, the place where the drums are, "Those barrels, they love it," Hale says. "It's a great visual."

What would Love Canal be, after all, without barrels?

Ten years ago, Love Canal spilled into its neighbors' homes and became the nation's first officially proclaimed environmental disaster. This wasn't a vague threat like smog or a dirty river or problems with the food chain. It was a chemical swamp 3,000 feet long. And it was in people's backyards-99 of them to be exact. It was drums popping from the ground where children played. It was ooze seeping through basement walls.

Within two years, in 1980, Congress created the Superfund, a multi-billion dollar program to search out and destroy-or at least confine-die abandoned dumps that suddenly seemed to be everywhere across the country. State governments also took an interest, creating their own mini-Superfunds. New consultants came forth, speaking the language of "remedial action master p"thermal destruction units," an "plasma arcs."

But after ten years, Love Canal is still an environmental and bureaucratic quagmire. The dump site itself, about ten football fields long, has only been contained, not cleaned up. It costs about a halfmillion dollars a year to maintain, and chemicals from Love Canal still contaminate nearby streams and a school yard. The U.S. Justice Department suit against Occidental Chemical to determine financial responsibility for the site-which has already cost about $250 million- is not expected to come to trial for at least another two years.

Two different evacuations allowed about 1,000 nearby families to leave, most with state and federal assistance. Bulldozers knocked 237 houses and an elementary school into their basements and buried them. surrounding that field are ten blocks of mostly empty, crumbling homes. But the arbitrary boundary that defined the buyout zone ran down the middle of creeks and split neighbors with adjacent garages. Those on the wrong side speak bitterly of being left behind with collapsed property values and possible health risks.

Most troubling of all, there has been no conclusive study of Love Canal's actual effects on its residents' health. As the New York state health department decides this year whether to try to resell the homes, it doesn't even know how healthy or sick the Love Canal refugees are because it hasn't kept track of them. It's just beginning the enormous task of locating those who moved. Residents of the area have complained of health problems ranging from miscarriages to cancer. But they still can't say whether Love Canal is to blame or whether it will affect their future health.

A tragic story in its own right, Love Canal points toward larger failings. Since Congress created the Superfund, the Environmental Protection Agency has put more than 900 sites on its list of the nation's most dangerous dumps. But only 13 have been cleaned up or contained to the point where they are now considered safe, Love Canal is hardly the biggest. In the Niagara area alone, Occidental has two other dumps with three to four times as much hazardous waste, and the EPA doesn't even rank Love Canal in the top 10 percent of the nation's most dangerous waste sites. But its significance is large. Ten years ago, Love Canal was a powerful symbol of environmental terror Today it symbolizes the state and federal government's limited ability to cope.

Basement sludge

The Niagara Falls tourist maps don't give Love Canal's location, but the cars with the out-of-state plates find it anyway, driving slowly through with home video cameras whining. Once visitors get over the fact that Love Canal itself now looks more like a fairway than a dump, they don't leave disappointed. There is something eerie about the surrounding neighborhood of closely spaced homes; it looks like a company town that the company left in a hurry. Only 70 households remain spread over ten blocks, dwelling among 527 private homes and a 304-unit public housing complex. "Nobody's got the guts to come out and say it's safe," says Louise Lewis, one of the holdouts who would like to have some neighbors again.

The presence of Lewis and the others only throws the desolation into sharper contrast-a woman carries groceries from a car parked on an otherwise deserted street; kids ride their bikes in lazy zigzags past crumbling, boarded-up homes. On 93rd Street, the venetian blinds hang twisted in the windows of the elementary school, as though a strong wind has blown through the empty building.

The 93rd Street Elementary School was only a couple of years old in 1955, when Emmett Berard and his wife moved into their new brick ranch-style on Shantz Avenue, just around the corner. To the 30-year-old construction worker, it was a nice neighborhood of families just starting out. Only two years earlier the Hooker Chemical Corporation, now owned by Occidental, had finished filling in a huge trench in the eastern corner of the city of Niagara Falls, several blocks away. Hooker, which had been manufacturing pesticides and fire retardants (in part for military clothing), deposited more than 200 different toxic chemicals into the trench. There are so many different chemicals mixed among the estimated 21,800 tons that researchers have given up trying to identify them all.

The trench had been dug in the 1890s by William Love, a man with a vision of a hydroelectric canal that would bypass Niagara Falls to power a new industrial city alongside. The plan went bust, but residents of the rural area got a good swimmiing hole in the bargain. Some residents continued swimming there after 1942, when Hooker started filling the canal, but they said the mater had begun to sting.

Niagara Falls was still growing and young families were moving into the city's eastern corner when Hooker finished with the canal and covered it over in 1953. Seeing the need for a new elementary school, the city board of education approached Hooker about buying the dump. Lawyers differ about Hooker's willingness to part with the land. But when the company finally did turn it over to the board for one dollar, the deed warned that chemical wastes were buried there and that Hooker was absolving itself of responsibility for whatever might happen at the dump, "including death resulting therefrom'"

The disclaimer did no more to dissuade the gungho board than did the discovery of buried waste drums when construction workers dug the new 99th Street School's foundation. The board moved the school site slightly as a result of the drums and built a drainage system so liquids seeping from the old canal wouldn't flood the basement. They placed the school's baseball diamond atop the dump itself. The board of education also hauled about 3,000 cubic yards of "fill" from the dump grounds to its other new elementary school over on 93rd Street. Then the board sold some of the remaining canal land to the city and private owners. By the early 1970s there were nearly a hundred homes on 97th and 99th streets with backyards abutting a long empty lot that should have been 98th Street but was really a chemical-filled trench.

The dumps presence was no secret. Since the late 1950s there had been intermittent reports of unpleasant encounters with chemicals in the big lot behind the new houses and the school. Nunzio LoVerdi, a tenant in a nearby public housing complex until several months ago, says that when he visited the 99th Street School in 1969 to discuss his son's schooling, teachers were worried. "The teachers told us this was a chemical dump and the stink was terrible," he recalls. Nevertheless, the warnings didn't seem serious enough to alarm residents, many of whom worked at Hooker and the other chemical companies that had created a forest of distillation columns and reactor vessels along the Niagara River just above the famous cataracts.

But by the mid-1970s residents were complaining more frequently and openly about their noxious neighbor First it was the pungent times wafting from the big lot. Then after several seasons of unusually heavy rain and snow, the complaints became more urgent. By 1976, people along 97th and 99th streets were finding dead bushes in their yards, thick oils fouling their basement pumps, and industrial odors drifting through their homes. Precipitation had leaked into the old canal and was displacing its hazardous wastes like water in an overflowing bathtub. Residents' anxiety grew when state environmental officials visited their neighborhood later that year looking for the source of chemicals that had moved down the Niagara River, contaminating fish in Lake Ontario.

For nearly two years, the local, state, and, finally, federal governments looked into the problem. Local officials talked with a consultant and Hooker Chemical about a project to stem the dump's leakage. They also sought to calm residents, sometimes using tactics that infuriated. Joann Hale remembers one early meeting when she nervously asked a local health official whether construction might not release chemicals from the dump. "What do you think they have buried there, an atomic bomb?" she recalls the man replying.

State and federal technicians were amassing a growing catalog of tests that showed chemicals had indeed infiltrated some homes along the old canal, and health officials began studying the increasingly edgy residents. On August 2, 1978, after state researchers found that there had been an unusual number of miscarriages among women living near the dump, the New York state health commissioner declared an emergency around the canal and suggested that pregnant women and children under two years old move from the 97th and 99th street homes. As for how those women and children might comply, that was their problem. Months of growing concern gave way to panic and "Evacuate Us Now!" signs.

Hugh Carey, then governor and facing reelection that fall, called for federal aid, and days later he was able to tell the Love Canal residents he had succeeded-the state, with federal help, would buy 237 homes along both sides of 97th and 99th streets. Within a week, the suggested relocation of a handful of residents had escalated into the permanent evacuation of hundreds; Love Canal had gone from a state health problem to a national disaster.

A mere six miles up the Niagara River from one of America's great natural wonders, the consequences of environmental degradation had become terrifyingly tangible. Foul-smelling sludge oozed through the cinder-block walls of basement rec rooms. Anybody with eyes and a family and a mortgage knew this was bad. At Love Canal, the environmental movement found its proletariat.

"Nobody wanted another Love Canal in their community," says Paul J. Allan, spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, "and when they realized there were a lot of them, it caused the type of grass-roots uprising that politicians understand."

The tax assessor's map

Government may not have responded as fast as everyone would have liked, but by the fall of 1978 it was moving people out and sealing off the dump. Several blocks away, however, well beyond the initial evacuation zone, Emmett Berard noticed something in his basement that he hadn't seen there before: black The stinkiest thing I ever saw," he recalls. "It came from the Love Canal; I don't care what they say." Until it was filled a couple of decades earlier, a wide natural depression had run from the canal area toward Berard's house. He concluded that chemicals had escaped the dump through that swale.

Several blocks over, on 96th Street, seven-yearold Jon Kenny went into convulsions that fall and died. The boy had kidney disease and related immunological problems. His mother, Luella, had noted that he repeatedly improved during hospital stays but worsened when he came home. She became convinced that it had something to do with the storm sewer that emptied into Black Creek right behind her home, which also resided outside the first evacuation You could smell it and you could see the oily film on the surface of the water," Kenny recalls.

On the other side of the neighborhood, a 27-yearold housewife named Lois Gibbs was going door to door collecting information on her neighbors' health. Gibbs was worried. When she moved to 101st Street in 1974, her year-old son, Michael, was fine. Then he developed epilepsy, asthma, and liver problems. And when she gave birth two years later to a daughter, Melissa, the girl suffered from a rare blood disorder. Gibbs quickly emerged as a neighborhood leader armed with disturbing information.

Surveys by her Love Canal Homeowners Association and Beverly Paigen, who was then a cancer researcher at Roswell Park Memorial Institute in nearby Buffalo, showed high miscarriage and birth defect rates in places beyond the original evacuation zone. The rates were highest for women living around the filled-in swales that crossed the historically marshy neighborhood. The surveys also turned up large numbers of urinary disorders, nervous breakdowns, epilepsy cases, and other problems. Paigen was alarmed at the implication that Love Canal was causing problems well beyond the official borders, and she joined residents calling for a wider evacuation. "It just looked like a very toxic situation," she says.

State public health officials thought otherwise. Even after confirming Luella Kenny's suspicion that Love Canal wastes had escaped into storm sewers and reached neighborhood creeks, the officials said they had no evidence that residents were at risk. Many residents were outraged. In September 1978, as the state was buying up homes immediately around the dump, the New York state health department issued a report en"Love Canal: Public Health Time Bomb." Now those officials wanted to muffle the ticking.

Some saw a correlation between the apparent change in official attitude and the avalanche of new dumpsite discoveries that followed Love Canal. "When they thought Love Canal was an isolated problem they behaved like public officials concerned with public health," says Paigen. "When they saw it was a statewide problem that the federal government wouldn't help with, they were afraid it would bankrupt New York State."

Peter Slocum, a state health department spokesman, denies that, saying the department's critics wanted it to find things that weren't there. "There was not the evidence to make the case that people wanted to make," he says. "I don't think there's evidence that the health department turned tail and ran '"

The U.S. Justice Department, meanwhile, was making a case of its own. Soon after filing suit against Hooker in late 1979, it commissioned a study of genetic damage among Love Canal residents. The swdy was preliminary, involving a small number of people and no control group. But when it found genetic damage in some residents, EPA officials feared the press was onto the story, and in May 1980 the EPA announced the results publicly.

Residents were enraged. Government had refused to evacuate them, and now, many felt, they and their children would bear the genetic scars. When a pair of EPA representatives visited the neighborhood several days later, people found a focus for their rage and an angry crowd comered the officials in the Homeowners Association headquarters, holding them "hostage" there for five hours. Researchers would later decide that the chromosomes of Love Canal residents were no more damaged than those of other Niagara Falls residents, but within five days of the EPA announcement, President Carter declared a second Love Canal emergency. A month before the 1980 presidential election, Carter traveled to Love Canal and signed an unprecedented agreement for the federal and state governments to buy out the hundreds of remaining homeowners. Once again, Love Canal decisions were being made on a campaign timetable.

After the buyout money came through, the only hitch was deciding just where the Love Canal neighborhood ended. State officials had never conceded the area was contaminated, and therefore they had no logical place to draw a boundary line. What they did have was an assessor's map used to satisfy earlier pleas for Love Canal tax relief, recalls Norman H. Nosenchuck, who headed New York's Love Canal cleanup efforts from 1978 through last year "That's why the line goes down the middle of a stream, and that's why the line goes between two garages about three feet apart," Nosenchuck says. "There was no scientific basis to it."

The evacuation zone's northern boundary is Bergholtz Creek, which is contaminated with dioxin that escaped from Love Canal through storm sewers. Because the line runs down the middle of the creek, homeowners on the north bank were excluded from the government buyout, even though their side of the creek is just as contaminated as the side that is officially part of Love Canal.

The official boundary runs along Emmett Berard's property line, just yards from the living room chair where he sits in gray work clothes watching afternoon television. The line then dives into the creek behind his house and turns away, leaving the 63-yearold Berard ineligible for the government buyout that allowed his next-door neighbor to leave.

"You can't give the property away, just about," Berard says. Two years ago his doctor told him that he has bladder cancer. "I've got to wear a bag all the time," he says"They should have at least given us the option to get out."

The politics of poisons

"It was a real nice neighborhood before this happened," says William D. Broderick. "We'd like it to still be." The tall, graying lawyer is leaning against one of two desks in what used to be a local storeowner's living room. Across the wall-to-wall carpet is a fireplace of tan brick; out the picture window behind him is a creek, no less picturesque for the dioxin in it.

Broderick works out of one of the pricier abandoned homes in the neighborhood. Why not? He is, after all, the lord of Love Canal. As head of the Love Canal Revitalization Agency, Broderick is responsible for the 463 houses the government bought after the 1980 emergency order. But he's not particularly happy abou"We received money from the state and federal governments for buying the homes," he says, "but we didn't receive any money to maintain them"

Officials have always hoped to resell these homes, which they bought for $17.2 million, mostly in federal money. They figured that once residents left, the y'd test the area for contamination and then decide whether it was safe to go into the real estate business. "This issue was supposed to have been decided by December of 1980," Broderick says. "It's almost as if they wanted the houses to deteriorate so they wouldn't have to make the decision."

The speculation is widely shared. If government decides the area is really safe, it is aB but saying that the 1980 evacuation was unnecessary since the environmental conditions remain essentially the same. If it decides the area is unsafe, it is sending a diswrbing message to the countless number of people who live around other dumps across the nation. "There are thousands of sites out there and all have homes with low levels of contaminants around them," says Gibbs. "Do they evacuate all those homes?"

Good question. Especially since policy-makers still know relatively little about the effects of living with hazardous waste dumps. Public health officials haven't even kept track of Love Canal residents, the nation's most celebrated dump victims, potentially squandering an opportunity not only to help them but also to guide decisions at other sites.

The New York state health department, which was in charge of studying the dump's effects, has defended its efforts. The department has said that Love Canal cancer rates seemed normal, though Paigen, the former cancer researcher, claims the agency's own statistics belie that. The department also has said there appeared to be no unusual rates of any other diseases. But the department did find that women living on the canal's southeast side had a high miscarriage rate. And despite official confidence that wastes were not escaping through swales, the department has said that children born in the swale areas had more birth defects than those in other sections. One department swdy also found that women in the swale areas had babies with low birth weights during the years that Hooker was dumping in the canal.

In the absense of ongoing studies, some Love Canal refugees have been keeping track of the former residents on their own. "Cancer has become so prominent," says Patricia Brown, whose 21-year-old daughter still has problems from the knee tumor she was born with. "Since January, within two blocks there have been five more cases." Kenny says eight of her former neighbors have had mastectomies. "One house had four dogs the of cancer," she adds.

Paigen has published two journal articles on Love Canal children, who she found were shorter than normal and suffered unusually high rates of seizures, hyperactivity, skin rashes, eye irritation, abdominal pain, incontinence, and learning problems. Paigen says some health problems, such as abdominal pain and seizures, seem to have cleared up after people left Love Canal.

Congress wanted the federal government to get a better handle on dumpsite health problems when it called for the establishment of the Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registries as part of the 1980 Superfund law. But the Reagan administration dragged its heels and the agency didn't get off the ground until 1986; by October it expects to have identified the residents around only two of the nation's 951 Superfund "There's just a dearth of information," said the agency's JeAnne Burg.

Superfund cleanups have progressed at only a slightly faster pace: since 1980, the EPA has finished with 13 dumps. Love Canal isn't among the m. The dump itself was contained by December 1979, and environmental engineers say they've got it well under control. But they're still working on the contamination in the nearby streams and schoolyard. Engineers say they lack the technology to safely remove the chemicals in the actual dump. "I think the initial feeling with Love Canal and other sites was we could just go out and clean them up," says J. Winston Porter, who has headed the EPA!s Superfund program for the past three years. "Now we know the y're very unstructured, complex problems'" Things bogged down as lawmakers fought it out with Rita LAvelle, one of Porter's predecessors, and Anne Burford over the EPA:s cleanup efforts. And in 1985, Superfund just ran out of funds. Congress rejuvenated it the next year. "The program was kind of up, down, and sideways for four or five or six years, Porter says.

The courts have moved with equal slowness. Attorneys for the government are still preparing to go to trial over Love Canal, possibly in 1990. The case began in late 1979, but five months later the Justice Department put it on hold because it didn't have enough lawyers to handle it simultaneously with three others against Hooker and Occidental for other local dumps. The pretrial moratorium lasted four years, but the case has nevertheless generated a file of more than a half-million pages.

U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin has already ruled that the liability provisions of the 1980 Superfund law apply to Occidental, even though Hooker sold the dump in 1953. Occidental has countered that the local, state, and federal governments should absorb Love Canal's costs, arguing that the dump would not have leaked if it hadn't been disturbed by construction of streets, sewers, and the 99th Street School. And it challenges the wisdom of government actions, beginning with the 1978 evacuation. "The whole second emergency declaration was unnecessary," says Steven K. Yablonski, an attorney for Occidental.

Whatever the court outcome, it's unlikely to do much for folks like Nunzio LoVerdi, who recently moved out of the public housing complex after a long campaign to save it from demolition crews. The Niagara Falls Housing Authority plans to raze the $7 million complex this fall because it deteriorated during the years federal and state officials spent studying the neighborhood's safety.

Shortly before giving up the fight, LoVerdi visited the edge of the Love Canal field, near the brick leachate treatment building that filters waste oozing from the dump. It was the spot where thencandidate AI Gore was scheduled to speak, before his advance people spotted all those photogenic drums a little farther up the fence.

LoVerdi was unimpressed "This is all we've had for 10 years," he said, "political promises and people coming here to use Love Canal."
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Author:Danzo, Andrew
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Sep 1, 1988
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