The legacy of Love Canal serves a myriad of research interests. It is an important event in the transformation of "the American environmental movement into a social movement." Scholars trace the environmental movement "from its origins as an upper-class movement with a wilderness-centered ideology to its transformation into a richer, more diverse membership and an ideology inclusive of the urban environment" (from: S. Silveira, "The American Environmental Movement: Surviving Through Diversity"
Love Canal is perhaps the best known and most documented event of that time period. The vast collection of materials in Special Collections at the University at Buffalo Libraries includes both government and non-government, corporate and private materials that all contribute to the telling of this unfortunate and chilling story. Check the University at Buffalo's Love Canal website for information about the Love Canal collections available for use by students and other researchers.
In early 1893, William T. Love, a former executive with the Western Railway Corporation, was pursuing his plan to gain New York State legislative approval for a municipal corporation bill to establish Model City in the Niagara region of upstate New York. Love envisioned an incorporation of stock holders that could buy and sell real estate to acquire the necessary land for creating a city that would also build and own manufacturing plants. This "model" city would also build, equip, and operate its own street railways, gas works, telephone exchange, electric light plant and water plant, and build and control the steam railroad tracks running through the city. All of these services were to be furnished to residents at cost, using the power generated from Niagara Falls. A proposed canal that could move the waters between the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers was already being excavated (from: "A Model Industrial City: Mr. William T. Love Proposes to Establish It in Niagara County," New York Times, 1893 May 31).
By 1910, Love’s vision had disintegrated. Tesla’s innovation of alternating current (AC), made it less compelling for large industries to locate so close to hydro power sources. The national and state economies would no longer support his plans, and so the project was abandoned. The deep gash in the ground where digging for the canal had begun was left open and vacant. Industries did move into the area—lots of them. Still, the draw of unlimited, inexpensive hydro power lured many new corporations to the area. Westinghouse, General Electric, and the Niagara Falls Hydroelectric Plant (Schoellkopf Plant) all harnessed the power of the falls to supply electric energy to interested manufacturers. Industrial wastes were routinely dumped from about the 1920s on. At this time, the human and environmental implications of dumping industrial wastes were largely unregulated and virtually ignored. In 1942, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation began disposing chemical waste in the former Love Canal site. In 1947, Hooker Chemicals became the owner and sole user of the land and continued to dispose of chemical waste there until it reached capacity in 1952. It has been estimated that between 1942 and 1972 the chemical giant dumped over 199,900 tons of chemical waste in four landfill areas of Niagara Falls, including 21,000 tons at the former canal site over approximately a 10-year period. In 1953, Hooker Chemicals sold the Love Canal site to the City of Niagara Falls for $1 under the city’s power of eminent domain. The land was used to construct an elementary school and eventually about 100 middle-class residential homes.
As New York’s industrial jobs left in the 1970s and 1980s, it would soon be discovered that these industries left the state with a multi-billion dollar cleanup project. "On August 10, 1977, Niagara Falls Gazette reporter Michael Brown published the first front-page story about this working-class neighborhood. Brown, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts, drew the world’s attention to the slimy black ooze from an abandoned dump that was coming back to the surface" (from: New York State Archives, "Environmental Affairs in New York State: An Historical Overview"). By 1978 the corroding containers of toxic wastes were leaching into the surrounding soil and water and bubbling up into basements and lawns of area residents. The high level of medical illnesses and birth defects among resident families were finally linked to the more than 82 toxins that were in the air, water, and soil. A medical emergency for the entire Love Canal area was declared by the federal government, and legal actions were underway to make Hooker Chemical—and the many other companies that had dumped their wastes indiscriminately—accountable for their actions. Grassroots citizen protest groups and formal legal actions combined to put pressure on both the government and eventually the private companies to clean up the area and try to compensate the residents for their losses of homes, health, and lives.
"Four pieces of federal legislation set the rules for New York’s contentious cleanup. In 1976, The Toxic Substances Control Act required manufacturers to report to the EPA on the hazardous effect of their chemicals and mixtures and authorized the EPA to restrict the use of these substances. Also in 1976, The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act established a federal hazardous waste management program allowing states to take over the problem once they set up their own agencies. New York enacted its hazardous waste control program in 1978, just as the storm was breaking at Love Canal.
The third major piece of toxic waste legislation was Superfund, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. This was passed in 1980 to provide some of the massive funds that were needed to clean up the nation’s worst toxic waste sites, including Love Canal and 79 others in New York. By the time the state received federal approval for their program in 1986, New York’s voters had approved a $1.2 billion state Superfund to complement the federal fund. Half of the $1.2 billion came from fees from industry and half from taxpayers.
The fourth plank in the legal platform was the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (OSHA). It authorized the Secretary of Labor to set health and safety standards for the workplace and safe treatment of toxic substances became a major focus of the law. OSHA was the culmination of the Industrial Hygiene movement of the 1930s and 1940. It aroused vehement opposition from businesses that complained of arbitrary and unreasonable rules. It continues to be a lightning rod for controversy, but statistics show that it has made the workplace safer" (previous three paragraphs quoted from: New York State Archives, "Environmental Affairs in New York State: An Historical Overview").
The Love Canal Collection preserves and makes available information about what happened locally and nationally as a result of the disaster at Love Canal. We should remember the following words:
"Quite simply, Love Canal is one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history. But that's not the most disturbing fact. What is worse is that it cannot be regarded as an isolated event. It could happen again—anywhere in this country—unless we move expeditiously to prevent it." (from: "The Love Canal Tragedy," EPA Journal, 1979 January)
Collection owner: University at Buffalo