Love’s Canal

In 1892 William Love began an ambitious project to build a canal connecting upper and lower Niagara Rivers. His plan was to harness the water for an inexpensive power source to power a community he envisioned. The depression and the discovery of alternating current put a halt to his plans, only one mile was ever dug. For many years the ditch was used as a swimming hole for locals. Then in 1920, the plot of land was sold at public auction to be used as a chemical waste site. For over 20 years the municipality and the US government used the site as a chemical dumpsite. In 1942 Hooker Chemical acquired the land, by 1952 the site was filled to capacity, with approximately 20,000 tons of chemical waste. Hooker covered the site with clay and soil, and in 1953 sold the site to the Board of Education for the price of $1. Hooker did not want to sell the land to the BOE and included in the deed, a warning stating that it had been a chemical dump site and the did not recommend the use of the site for homes or a school (History Channel).

The Board of Education built the 99th Street School directly above the chemical dumpsite. The remaining land was sold to developers for private homes and low-income housing. The deeds to the property did not contain any of the original 17-line warning of the dangers of building on the site (Wikipedia). By the 1970’s many residents of the area began to complain of various illnesses. They also discovered a leeching of a black tarry goo bubbling up on the school’s playground as well as in many homes. The problem seemed to be aggravated by the blizzards of 1977 and the spring thaw. In 1978 a reporter from The Niagara Gazette, Michael Brown, began a series of investigative reports, uncovering the hazards of the area. Residents organized, led by Lois Gibbs, and petitioned to close the 99th Street School. The Board of Education refused stating that there was not sufficient danger to the students. Later the matter gained the attention of the nation and public health officials. The school was closed, residents relocated and President, Jimmy Carter deemed the area a disaster area (History Channel).

At first glance it would be easy to place the blame solely on Hooker Chemicals and Occidental Chemicals, the parent company. However, Hooker Electric was extremely reluctant to sell the land to the Board of Education, it was not until they were threatened by an imminent domain action. “To protect themselves against indemnity, Hooker added a disclaimer to the deed warning of the danger and washing Hooker’s hands of the site. The company would only accept one dollar for the site- the minimum for a binding contract- likely as a show of disdain” (Allen). Hooker had been legally dumping chemicals on the site and: “Hooker took great caution in sealing it. The seal was so hard that it broke the city developers drill bits and impeded backhoes when they first attempted to take the clay for fill. The Hooker engineers knew what they were dealing with and worked to safely contain the chemicals with the most advanced methods of the time period.” (Allen)

The Board of Education failed to heed the warnings, whether through ignorance or through greed. Furthermore, when the remaining land was sold, the board failed to disclose the possible dangers they had been vehemently warned of by Hooker. This failure by the board must have been added insult to injury, as the very organization established to care for and educate the children of the area failed to warn them of the dangers of living there. Once they sold the property, with full disclosure, they had fulfilled their ethical obligation. To the best of their knowledge, they had contained the chemicals, and had fully disclosed the dangers. To hold Hooker responsible for the Board of Education’s actions would be like holding a gun dealer responsible for selling a gun later used in a shooting. If the dealer performed the required background checks and sold the gun legally, they can not be held responsible for the owner’s subsequent actions. Perhaps Hooker could have warned the residents of Love’s Canal of the dangers, and perhaps Occidental Chemicals could have cooperated more with investigations, but ultimately the blame rests with the Board, they were negligent, they failed to heed warnings and failed to pass these warnings onto the residents. But he fact remains, that “Quite simply, Love Canal is one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history” (EPA). And all chemical companies have an obligation to understand the consequences of this tragedy and to work to prevent it from ever happening again.

Works Cited:

Allen, Shawn M. “What Happened at Love’s Canal?”. Alfred University.
. September 3, 2005.
Beck, Eckhart. “The Love Canal Tragedy.” January, 1979. EPA Journal.
September 3, 2005.
“Love Canal” August 22, 2005. Wikipedia Online Encyclopedia.
. September 3, 2005.
“Love’s Canal in New York.” Engineering Disasters #13. Modern Marvels. History
Channel. September 3, 2005.

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