Love Canal is an abandoned canal in Niagara County, New York, where a huge amount of toxic waste was buried. The waste was composed of at least 300 different chemicals, totaling an estimated 20,000 metric tons. The existence of the waste was discovered in the 1970s when families living in homes subsequently built next to the site found chemical wastes seeping up through the ground into their basements, forcing them to eventually abandon their homes.
Love Canal was used from the 1940s through the 1950s by the Hooker Chemical Company and the city of Niagara Falls, among others, to dispose of their hazardous and municipal wastes and other refuse. The canal was surrounded by clay and was thought at the time to be a safe place for disposal—and, in fact, burying chemicals in the canal was probably safer than many other methods and sites used for chemical disposal at the time. In 1953, the Niagara Falls Board of Education bought the land-fill for $1 and constructed an elementary school with playing fields on the site. Roads and sewer lines were added and, in the early 1970s, single-family homes were built adjacent to the site.
Following a couple of heavy rains in the mid-1970s, the canal flooded and chemicals were observed on the surface of the site and in the basements of houses abutting the site. Newspaper coverage, investigations by the State of New York and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, combined with pressure from the district's U.S. congressional representative and outrage on the part of local residents, led to the declaration of a health emergency involving "great and imminent peril to the health of the general public." Ultimately, in August, 1978, a decision was made by Governor Hugh Carey, supported by the White House, to evacuate the residents and purchase 240 homes surrounding the site. Shortly thereafter, the residents of nearby homes that did not immediately abut the site also became concerned about their health and conducted a health survey that purported to show an increase in the occurrence of various diseases and problems such as birth defects and miscarriages, which were attributed to chemical exposures. A great controversy ensued over whether the observations were real or reflected normal rates of such problems, and whether chemical exposures had, in fact, occurred. Eventually, political pressure resulted in families being given an opportunity to leave and have their homes purchased by the State. About 70 homes remained occupied in 1989 by families who chose not to move.
The controversy at Love Canal followed on the heels of the heightened awareness that occurred in the 1960s about environmental contamination, and it contributed to public and regulatory concern about hazardous wastes, waste disposal, and disclosure of such practices. Such concerns led Congress to pass the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) and the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) in 1976, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund bill, in 1980. When CERCLA was passed, few were aware of the extent of the problem potentially created by years of inappropriate or inadequate hazardous waste disposal practices. Since implementing CERCLA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more
Levine, A. (1982). Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.
Mazur, A. (1998). A Hazardous Inquiry: The Rashemon Effect at Love Canal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.