The canal was a small artificial waterway which once flowed into the Niagara River in New York State. It was originally excavated in the late nineteenth century as part of a hydroelectric project. From the early 1940’s until the early 1950’s, the canal was used by Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation as a dump for its chemical wastes. During that time more than 40,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemical wastes (including dioxins, lindane, and arsenic trichloride) were dumped into the conduit. In 1945, an analyst for Hooker predicted that ‘the quagmire at Love Canal will be a potential source of lawsuits’. Despite this recognition, or perhaps because of it, the site was filled in by the company, and sold to the local Board of Education in 1953 for $1, on the condition that the company was absolved from any future liability for the site.
An elementary school was erected at Love Canal, and later a housing estate was built. Twenty years later the site was found to be leaking. There were reports among the local population of skin irritations and respiratory problems, and in 1977 tests revealed that the soil and water in the vicinity of the former dump were heavily contaminated with a wide range of toxic chemicals many of them carcinogenic. The local authorities refused to act at first. But in April 1978, after persistent lobbying from the local citizens’ group, a state of emergency was declared by President Carter’s government. It was the first time that a national emergency had been declared anywhere as a result of chemical pollution.
The New York State Commissioner for Health ordered the evacuation of 240 families and the dump was cordoned off as a Federal Disaster Area. Lawsuits of $1,400 million have been filed against Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation. But half a century after the damage was inflicted the site at Love Canal has still not been cleaned up.
It is not an isolated incident.
A second Hooker dump at Bloody Run Creek, situated just across the road from a water treatment plant serving 100,000 people, has also been found to be leaking. And there are 212 other dump sites in the Niagara Falls area alone, containing an estimated 8 million tonnes of hazardous wastes. In fact there are around 15,000 uncontrolled hazardous waste landfills and 80,000 contaminated lagoons in the United States. A national priority list of around 2,000 sites has been drawn up under the US Superfund program, which has the responsibility of making financial provision for cleaning up past contamination. The cost of cleaning up only these national priority sites has been estimated at approaching $200 billion.
(Background information taken from Material Concerns, by Tim Jackson, published by Routledge 1996)