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Background Information

Love Canal is probably the country's most notorious and infamous hazardous waste site. It wasn't the first. It wasn't the worst. But it did grab headlines, draw attention, and stimulate scientists, industrial leaders, politicians, government officials, and grassroots activists.

The Love Canal neighborhood is in the southeast section of the La Salle area of Niagara Falls, New York. William T. Love, an 1890's visionary and entrepreneur, sought to develop a planned industrial community, Model City, in the area. Waters from the Niagara River were to be routed around the Niagara escarpment (the other famous attraction of the region, Niagara Falls) to produce cheap hydroelectric power.

Model City never happened, but work on the canal to transport waters from the Niagara River did. In 1942, Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation purchased the site of the Love Canal. Between 1942 and 1953 Hooker Chemical disposed of about 22,000 tons of mixed chemical wastes into the Love Canal. Shortly after Hooker ceased use of the site, the land was sold to the Niagara Falls School Board for a price of $1.00. In 1955, the 99th Street Elementary School was constructed on the Love Canal property and opened its doors to students. Subsequent development of the area would see hundreds of families take up residence in the suburban, blue-collar neighborhood of the Love Canal.

Unusually heavy rain and snowfalls in 1975 and 1976 provided high groundwater levels in the Love Canal area. Portions of the Hooker landfill subsided, 55-gallon drums surfaced, ponds and other surface water area became contaminated, basements began to ooze an oily residue, and noxious chemical odors permeated the area. Physical evidence of chemical corrosion of sump pumps and infiltration of basement cinderblock walls was apparent. Subsequent studies by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would reveal a laundry list of 421 chemical records for air, water, and soil samples in and around the Love Canal area.

In April of 1978 the New York Department of Health Commissioner, Robert Whalen, declared the Love Canal area a threat to human health and ordered the fencing of the area near the actual old landfill site. In August, the Health Commissioner declared a health emergency at the Love Canal, closed the 99th Street School, and recommended temporary evacuation of pregnant women and young children from the first two rings of houses around the site. Within a week, Governor Hugh Carey announced the intended purchase of all "Ring 1" houses (later expanded to 238 houses in Rings 1 and 2). President Jimmy Carter simultaneously announced the allocation of federal funds and ordered the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to assist the City of Niagara Falls to remedy the Love Canal site.

Amid this setting, individuals (most notably Lois Gibbs, Dr. Beverly Paigen, and Sister Margeen Hoffmann, OSF) and local neighborhood (such as the Love Canal Homeowners Association) and community groups (such as the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier) became concerned about the situation. Their primary concern was the actual extent of the chemical contamination and its impact on the health of Love Canal residents. Second, and perhaps more important, was the lack of readily available information to explain the science: the levels of uncertainty, political and corporate agendas, manipulation of the media -- in general an overall paucity of reliable information that would answer the simple question, "Is it safe?"

-- From the exhibit Love Canal @25 created by Fred Stoss and Carole Ann Fabian, August 1998