Pollution Past and Present: The Love Canal Disaster

Pollution Past and Present: The Love Canal Disaster

Despite its charming name, the Love Canal disaster is one of the most infamous cases of environmental injustice in US history. The Love Canal was a man-made canal constructed in the Niagara Falls region by William T. Love during the 1890s. Love intended to use the canal to generate water power that could be distributed to the residents living in the surrounding industrial city. However, the economic depression and the invention of alternating current electrical power rendered Love’s plan unreachable. By 1910, all of Love’s property had been sold. 


Pollution in the past

For many years, the canal and its surrounding lands sat unused — occasionally being used as landfill by local industries. This came to an end when the government sanctioned the Hooker Chemical Company to begin depositing chemical waste in the remains of the canal in the 1940s, triggering dire unforeseen consequences. It is estimated that the Hooker Chemical Company deposited 21,000 tonnes of ill-defined chemical waste in the canal before covering the polluted land with earth and selling it to the city for a mere $1 in 1953.


Pollution in the 70's and beyond

The city built 100 homes and a school along the remnants of the Love Canal. For decades, the town thrived and expanded, with many families moving into the neighbourhood. However, the ‘environmental time bomb’ errupted in the 1970s, when the region saw abnormally heavy rains and blizzards. The rainfall caused the 82 toxic chemicals buried beneath Love Canal to leech upwards into the local soil. Residents began to notice distinct chemical odors in their basements, promptly followed by a suspicious increase in sickness around the neighbourhood. 


Pollution and diseases

Epilepsy, asthma, migraines, nephrosis, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer, and mental health problems were abnormally high among the Love Canal residents. Whilst tragic, these occurrences were unsurprising given the later discovery of exactly which chemicals the residents of Love Canal were being exposed to daily. Of the 82 chemicals leaching into the neighbourhood, 11 were known carcinogens. The chemical soup poisoning the locals contained benzene, toluene, chloroform, mirex, and dioxin to name but a few. 

Table 1: Some of the chemicals present in the Love Canal soil samples and their known health effects.

Frightened by the staggering incidence of life-threatening illnesses around Love Canal, many locals campaigned fiercely for the Government to take action. With news of the pollution widespread, house prices in the neighbourhood had dropped drastically and residents were left with no choice but to stay and fight for their rights. Initially, New York State officials dismissed the activists of Love Canal, writing them off as ‘hysterical housewives’. However, in 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency and relocated the first 239 families from the area. Despite this, 700 families were deemed unsuitable for relocation and were forced to remain until 1981 when a second state of emergency sanctioned the remaining families to be relocated. 


Love Canal

Love Canal holds an important legacy in US environmental law and justice. The disaster pioneered the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act which granted the government and the EPA wide-reaching authority to remediate releases of toxic substances that threaten environmental/public health. The act also vowed that the entity or individuals responsible for contamination would be identified and prosecuted. The militant grassroots environmental justice movement in America was also fueled by the tragedy at Love Canal. To this day, these groups host anti pollution campaigns across the nation with the mission of spreading awareness for the disproportionate impact of toxic pollution on working-class and minority communities.


Pollution today

Sadly, environmental injustice remains dire to this day with poor and minority communities across the globe facing the heaviest pollution burdens. Throughout our Pollution: Past and Present series we shall explore more pollution case studies from across the globe and witness how many of these disasters affect low- and middle-income communities. In our next publication, we shall explore the injustices occurring along the Citarum River in Indonesia — one of the most polluted rivers in the world.