Jimmy Carter has made a great mark of his own on our region of the Great Lakes
“There must never in this country be another Love Canal.” – U.S. President Jimmy Carter, in the spring of 1980, after signing a second federal emergency declaration to assist hundreds of families leave their homes around the leaking Love Canal toxic waste dump in Niagara Falls, New York.
A News Commentary by Niagara At Large reporter and publisher Doug Draper
Posted March 22nd, 2019 on Niagara At Large
This Friday, March 22nd, Jimmy Carter, marked a milestone in the history of the U.S. presidency by becoming the longest living person, at age 94 and a half, and after the recently deceased George H. Bush, to have ever held the office.
Maybe all of the good people don’t die young, after all.
Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia government who served as the 39th president of the United States from 1977 to 1981, certainly made his mark on Niagara and on this bi-national region of our Great Lakes during his all-to-short tenure in his nation’s highest office.
In August of 1978, Carter signed the first of two documents, declaring a federal emergency at a neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, New York called Love Canal where, decades earlier, a local chemical industry buried close to 20,000 tonnes of some of the most toxic chemicals known to science – chemicals that were leaking out of the dump and into the yards of surrounding homes, and were also reaching creeks draining to the Niagara River.
That first declaration, which made it possible for more than 200 families to evacuate their homes and which began the process of assessing the contamination crisis and addressing it, helped bring widespread attention in his country and Canada to a toxic pollution problem that was already threatening the health of water, wildlife and millions of people living in the Great Lakes basin.
More than possibly anything else, the Love Canal crisis and the executive attention it suddenly received from Carter’s declaration mobilize groups of citizens around the Great Lakes, including groups like Operation Clean, led by Margherita Howe in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Pollution Probe, based in Toronto, to press governments in both countries to take more action against chemical polluters.
In May of 1980, Carter signed a second emergency declaration, freeing up another more than 700 families to flee their homes in outer rings of the Love Canal neighbourhood as evidence continued to emerge that the pollution was causing suffering for those families too.
Lois Gibbs, whose young family lived in one of those outer ring homes and who was president of the then-Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, wrote later, after witnessing the second declaration being signed by Carter; “I couldn’t believe it. We had actually won our major goal – permanent relocation.”
Before the end of the decade, and more than five years after Carter left the presidency, representatives of Ontario, New York State and the federal governments of Canada and the United States signed a binational agreement to curb the discharge of toxic chemicals to the Niagara River and Lake Ontario – but not before Jim Bradley, who is now Niagara Region’s chair and was then Ontario’s Minister of Environment, held out for an agreement that included a 10-year deadline to reduce concentrations of some of the most poisonous chemicals in the river and lake in half.
Bradley’s decision to hold out for an agreement with real targets and deadlines in is arguably one of the more significant reasons the waters of the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, and the flesh of fish, birds and other wildlife in and around these water bodies have less of these poisons in them today.
Jimmy Carter and his wide Rosalynn made what they wanted to be a relatively quiet and unceremonious visit to the Niagara area again in 1996, mingling with other tourists as they visited the Falls and taking a side trip to Vineland where they visited an Owl Foundation, founded by Kay and Larry McKeever to care for injured and orphaned owls.
Staff from Niagara Parks and Kay McKeever later told me how struck they were with the warmth and humility of a couple that once occupied the White House where they received leaders from around the world. They were prepared to great the Carters with titles they are entitled to keep – “Mr. President” and “former First Lady” – but they insisted on being called Jimmy and Rosalynn.
A friend of mine, who once worked with me at The St. Catharines Standard and went on to a job with the Reuters news service in the United States, told me he had the same warm experience while he was working in Philadelphia in the 1980s where he was assigned to do a story on the Carters, while they were both working on a job site, helping to build affordable homes for an organization called Habitat for Humanity.
The Carters, by the mid-1980s, were active supporters of the, by then, decade-old Habitat for Humanity which, for many years now, also has an active chapter in Niagara, were up on scaffolding, helping to lay bricks with work clothes on, when they invited my friend up to talk about the project. “Please call me Jimmy,” Carter insisted when they first shook hands.
My friend, who has always had a low tolerance for B.S. of any kind, was mightily impressed by this man who, thankfully, is still with us on this earth today.
Jimmy Carter’s presence and the exemplary life he has lived, not as one who is perfect or has always done things others have agreed with, but who has at least tried to make this world a better place for more than just himself, is important to keep in mind in these troubling kinds.
He is someone we should point to as a role model for our lives and those of our children.
Chris Matthews, the host of MSNBC’s cable news program Hardball, who once worked for Jimmy Carter as a young speech writer, remarked at the end of his program this March 21st on the milestone Carter has reached and paid his town tribute with these words –
“Jimmy Carter was never marred for a second by scandal or sleaze of any kind. … He left office with his hade high and his conscience clear. He did his best, not his worst.”
Stay health and stay with us as long as you can Jimmy Carter, and please come back for a visit to Niagara any time.
To watch Hardball host Chris Matthews’ tribute to Jimmy Carter, click on the link directly below –https://www.msnbc.com/hardball/watch/on-friday-jimmy-carter-becomes-oldest-living-former-us-president-1462708803605
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