It Took The Love Canal Disaster – 35 Years Ago In Niagara County, New York – To Wake Us Up To The Dangers Of Toxic Industrial Wastes

By Doug Draper

We humans like to think of ourselves as members of the most intelligent species on the planet.

A young Lois Gibbs, with her children in her Love Canal home kitchen, fighting for hundreds of families in her neighbourhood to be compensated for the destruction of their homes.

A young Lois Gibbs, with her children in her Love Canal home kitchen, fighting for hundreds of families in her neighbourhood to be compensated for the destruction of the neighbourhood and their homes.

And yet when it comes to warnings received – even from the most eminent of scientists – about things we are doing to our natural world that could bite back at us in ways that do grave harm to ourselves and our communities, it too often seems to take a disaster before we act.

Such was the case with the unregulated dumping of tens-of-thousands of tons of some of the world’s most toxic manmade chemicals in leaky holes in the ground, near the shores of the Niagara River in Niagara County, New York. It wasn’t until the plight of a neigbourhood built over one of those dumps – a neighborhood called Love Canal – made international headlines 35 years ago this year – that the first steps were taken too address these migrating poisons that threatened to destroy a source of freshwater for tens of millions of Americans and Canadians downstream around Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

This coming Tuesday, October 22nd , Lois Gibbs, who was president of the former Love Canal Homeowners Association, will return to Niagara County for a gathering to remember the 35th anniversary of what remains one of the worst disasters around manmade chemical wastes destroying a community since the manufacture of synthetic chemicals took off in the first decades of the 20th century.

This special anniversary event, commemorating a Love Canal crisis that, as its organizers have rightfully said; “awakened Western New York and the  Nation to Toxic Threats” will begin on October 22nd, from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Niagara Falls Culinary Institute on 28 Old Falls St. in Niagara Falls, New York. You can find out more about the event by clicking on a link at the end of this post.

But first, let me add just a few words as one whose career as a reporter, covering environmental issues began in the wake of Love Canal.

I have thought about this awful plight that ravaged the lives of Gibbs and so many of her neighbours over and over the years as I try to accept why so many people in this region and around the world don’t want to take other issues like smothering, killing smog and climate change-related issues seriously.

Lois Gibbs, speaking in more recent years outside a fence where some 18,000 tonnes of toxic wastes remain buried in the Love Canal area.

Lois Gibbs, speaking in more recent years outside a fence where some 18,000 tonnes of toxic wastes remain buried in the Love Canal area. File Photo by Doug Draper

It is interesting, in this regard, to note that a great scientist named Rachel Carson came out with a book in 1962 – now considered one of the bibles of environmental silences – called ‘Silent Spring’ which predicted the possibility, in its introduction, of a community like Love Canal that might be turned into a nightmare by a witches brew of manmade chemicals. She was immediately targeted by the petro-chemical industry and by the equivalent of climate change deniers at that time as a self-serving quack and a scare monger right up to the time that Love Canal happened and a president of the United States was finally forced to declare, for the first time, a neighborhood in that country, a national emergency due to toxic waste.

The Love Canal disaster turned the attention of not only Americans, but Canadians to the leakage of life-threatening concentrations of dioxin, mirex, chlorobenzenes and other of some of the worst wonders of modern-day technology to the hemorrhaging of those chemicals from that and other nearby dumpsites many of us came to know then as Hyde Park, S-Area and a 102nd Street site hugging the shores of the Niagara River.

Some brave Environment Canada scientists and officers joined citizen groups like Operation Clean in Niagara-on-the-Lake and Pollution Probe in Toronto in pressing for a cleanup of these sites, and Lois Gibbs deserves credit for being among the first to bring the threat of these toxic areas to our attention before they poisoned the lower Niagara River, Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River, and all that counted on their waters for life, past the point of no return.

Lois Gibbs, a young mother in a neighbourhood so suddenly threatened by an invasion industrial wastes, came to the fore with leadership qualities, an intelligence capable of penetrating through any bureaucratic and scientific gobolegook thrown at her, and an articulation and charisma that finally had the highest politicians in her land, including the president, take action. Long before anyone heard of Erin Brockovich, Gibbs was a prototype for so many other women, and they were mostly women, who have been leaders on environmental issues ever since.

What remains so disturbing though, is that we seem to need disasters that literally destroys communities before we take the warnings of experts in the environmental field seriously. By the time they come more severely around violent weather and other impacts of climate change, it may be too late

It won’t matter what lobbyists for the petro-chemical industry or climate change deniers have to say then. They won’t be there to pick up the pieces then.

If you wish to find out more about Lois Gibbs and the environmental organization she leads now, and find out more about the 35th anniversary commemoration of the Love Canal crisis and a viewing of a Love Canal-focused segment of a new film ‘A Fierce Green Fire’, narrated by Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and others,, you can click on the following two link s –  http://chej.org/  and http://chej.org/NY2013 .

(Niagara At Large invites you to share your views on this post. A reminder that we only post comments by individuals who share their first and last name with them.)

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3 responses to “It Took The Love Canal Disaster – 35 Years Ago In Niagara County, New York – To Wake Us Up To The Dangers Of Toxic Industrial Wastes

  1. Ah, Doug. I do hope you have made Jim Bradley aware of this, in a straightforward manner, as a PR or whatever. If you have not, I exhort you to do so, and add your bit about Fracking. I tried Jim’s office about the latter, and received a disappointing form-letter reply.

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  2. My name is Mike Cushman. Doug Draper has written another great environmental article pointing out things we should not forget yet Niagara Falls, Ontario never paid attention! Cyanamid sites are love canals, The General Abrasives site, Ohio brass site, Norton, INCO,Any where they rolled uranium in old steel mills. Paper mills, They dumped everywhere and now we build geared to income homes, new neighborhoods, Arenas on old sites never cleaned! Brown field redevelopment is a farce where they never clean up the sites before reuse! Our children and grand children deserve better. We should learn from the past!

    Mike Cushman Niagara Falls

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  3. Lois Gibbs came down in the 1980s to help the people of West Lincoln protest against having a waste dump in their backyard. I was there that day and it was an effective event. I also met Erin Brockovich at a special fundraiser a few years back. These two human dynamos are what we need more of in our nation. Unfortunately, we are being hit with pipelines and the prospect of other types of pollution that we need to fight off … before we all die.

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