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Love Canal II

Ruth Haag • Nov 12, 2013 at 3:00 PM

Lois Gibbs is standing in front of a house in the Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, New York.  She is talking to a homeowner about the illnesses that the homeowner’s family have had.  Is it 1979?  No, it is 2013.  Love Canal is again causing problems, this time for new residents who have recently moved in.

Until 1979 there was no profession known as hazardous waste remediation.  Industries created waste and disposed of it in various methods, but not too many people were concerned about it.  That all changed with Lois Gibbs, who lived in the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls New York.  Ms. Gibbs discovered that her son’s elementary school was built on a hazardous waste dump.  She made everyone aware that people were becoming ill, some dying.  The community was evacuated; and the country started looking seriously at hazardous waste.

Hazardous waste fact or fiction?

I have found three different philosophies when people talk about hazardous waste.  The first group, that I belong to, believes that hazardous waste is dangerous and should be permanently cleaned up before people start to use the contaminated land again.  The second philosophy group basically feels that everyone is making up the dangers.  These people are happy to come in contact with hazardous waste.  These are the same folks who say, on a day when the temperature is 100 degrees with 99% humidity, that they can work outside doing heavy lifting and will not get heat stroke.  The third philosophy group acknowledges the dangers of hazardous waste; but feels that it will cost too much to do anything about it.  These are the people who say things like, “First I need to make money and second I want to make sure no one gets hurt.”  They also say, “If we tell people that there is contamination there, they won’t buy the land.”  Their implication is that we shouldn’t talk about it.

When you talk with the people from these three different groups, you find that they each have a definition of what “clean” is.  We all like to think that clean means people can build houses and children can play in the dirt.  Clean can mean, “I have put a pile of soil over the waste.”  It can mean that it is clean to commercial/industrial standards, which means it is clean enough for another factory to be built on it.  At times, clean even means that two companies have agreed how clean they would like it before the property is transferred from one to the other.  Sometimes clean is, “the U.S. EPA said it was OK.”  Of course you don’t know what the question was that the U.S. EPA was answering!  Sometimes at an Ohio VAP site the soil is “clean” but the building has not been addressed.

Love Canal was “clean”

Love Canal has been declared “clean” and “safe.”  The remediation consisted of putting a liner and soil over the wastes that were disposed of in the abandoned canal by the Hooker Chemical Company.  The site is monitored; rainwater is caught and treated before it is disposed of.  Since it was thus “clean,” the City of Niagara Falls wanted people to live there again.  The neighborhood was renamed Black Creek Village.  The abandoned houses were fixed up, and sold at below market rate.  Some of the purchasers were totally unaware of the fact that they were purchasing right next to an historic hazardous waste site, just as Lois Gibbs was unaware of the waste site when her family purchased a house before 1978.  Still, things seemed to be working, until in 2011 city workers were working on a sewer pipe.  They reportedly came upon something that dissolved their shoe laces.  Not knowing what to do, they decided to flush the pipe, and did it with such force that this waste made it into some people’s basements.  And now people are getting sick again and pets are dying.  

Will this cause people to look askance at other sites that they were told were clean?  Since we have closed our hazardous waste remediation firm, my husband Bob and I will watch this round from the sidelines.  We know what we expect.  Which philosophy group do you belong to, this time around?

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