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What and Where is Love Canal?

By O. Wallace
Updated May 23, 2024
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Love Canal is a residential district comprised of 36 city blocks in the southeast area of the city of Niagara Falls, New York. Beghotz Creek borders the neighborhood on the north side, and the Niagara River borders it on the south. A portion of Love Canal was a dump site for toxic chemicals and waste for a good part of the 20th century. The chemicals' damaging effects on nearby residents brought toxic waste and its potentially devastating dangers to humans to the forefront of global consciousness.

The district was named for William T. Love, who proposed building a canal to connect the two different levels of the Niagara in order to help the local economy. Only 1 mile (1.61 kilometers) was completed, and the plan was scrapped due to economic problems. The city of Niagara Falls purchased the land in 1920, and it was repurposed as a site to dispose of chemical waste. It is rumored that the United States Army also dumped waste from chemical experiments at Love Canal.

From 1942 to 1953, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, which purchased the land from the city, buried nearly 22,000 tons (20,000 metric tons) of toxic waste products at Love Canal. In 1953, the site was considered to have reached maximum capacity and was closed.

Niagara Falls' school board needed land to expand and pressured Hooker Chemical to sell an area of the landfill. They were interested in building a new school on part of the property that had not been used as a dump site, but bordered it. Hooker Chemical sold the entire property for the low price of $1 US Dollar (USD), but included a short disclaimer releasing them from potential liability. The 99th Street School was built for elementary school students partially on the landfill site.

By the late 1950s, housing was being built in Love Canal, bordering the landfill, and unfortunately, buyers were not given disclosure of the site's potential hazards. Over the subsequent years, residents of Love Canal reported strange smells and substances that were appearing on their properties. Local officials responded by covering the substances with clay and further "securing" the landfill.

It wasn't until nearly 20 years later that the Love Canal Homeowner's Association, led by president Lois Gibbs, a mother of a 99th Street Elementary School student, began to bring the woes of the neighborhood to the nation's attention. It would be a three year battle to have the situation rectified by the government and Hooker Chemical. Residents of Love Canal were suffering from high cancer rates, birth defects, and unexplained illnesses. In previous years, they had had a hard time proving that the dump site was to blame.

The New York State Department of Health began a study in 1978 that evaluated the air, the soil, and a sampling of residents' health. The New York State Commissioner of Health issued a public health hazard warning on 25 April 1978, declaring the area hazardous. Residents still faced health problems and could not sell their houses to move away from the site.

President Jimmy Carter intervened on 7 August 1978, when he issued a declaration of a federal emergency. Residents were immediately relocated. After much testing and investigation, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined that chemicals had in fact found their way into the basements and homes of residents and had caused irreversible chromosomal damage and reproductive issues. This damage contributed to a higher risk of developing cancer, as well as other serious health issues.

On 21 May 1980, a state of emergency was declared and more than 800 Love Canal families were permanently moved and paid for their properties. Superfund was created in response to the catastrophe, and as a result, the parent of Hooker Chemical, Occidental Petroleum, was forced to pay $129 million USD to rectify the problem.

Love Canal was removed from the EPA's Superfund cleanup list in 2004, after the agency declared that all cleanup work was complete. The dump site itself is still cordoned off, surrounded by fences, but the neighborhood to the north has been renamed and repopulated.

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Discussion Comments
By anon282033 — On Jul 26, 2012

I actually attended the 99th street school for a short while while in the second grade. My family had just moved to the area - we were renting at the time - and our apartment was not in the 36 block area, but our school was.

After attending for a short while, I recall being told to not walk on the grass at school and to not use the water fountain! We moved shortly after that (because of this hazard being uncovered)- and it was an easy move because we did not own a home (and sadly many folks were stuck - until help came).

Anyhow, I thank God we were not long term residents in that area, but this sad event has impacted thousands -and thank you to the WiseGEEK team for covering the Love Canal in a post.

By Babalaas — On Feb 25, 2011

@ Alchemy- The toxins buried at the love canal are some of the most toxic chemicals known. It was a cocktail of over 200 different chemicals including large amounts of dioxin. Dioxins are extremely poisonous and have a long half-life. Their presence in the soil and water surrounding the area is very dangerous to the central nervous system, the immune system, and cell development.

The scariest part of the love canal disaster of 1978 is that construction crews are still digging up toxins. A construction crew dug up a large amount of chemical waste while fixing a sewer line that was less than a block away from a residential area. The news reports said it took at least five or six environmental waste tankers to pump all the toxins.

By Alchemy — On Feb 23, 2011

@ parmnparsley- Today the love canal is partially restored, but it is still a toxic site. The sixteen acres in the middle of the toxic site are still cordoned off in somewhat of a containment zone. It is a no-mans land that still has remnants of abandoned streets. Parts of the site have been cleaned up, and some areas on the East side have been redeveloped into neighborhoods. I have not personally been there, but this is what I know from reading about the area.

The love canal disaster was certainly a tragedy, but it was a necessary wake up call for the government and the rest of the country.

By parmnparsley — On Feb 21, 2011

What is the love canal today? Has the government redeveloped the site or is it still a toxic wasteland? Is it still a residential area?

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