How a Small Suburb of Niagara Falls Became a Toxic Superfund Site



Only a couple of miles from the city center of Niagara Fall lies a forgotten suburb filled with secrets. Love Canal, once one of the more thriving communities around Niagara Falls gained national attention when it was hit with a scandal that rocked the world. The quaint and quiet tree lined streets would transition from a bustling community to complete desolation almost over night and for decades following the streets of Love Canal would be left to deteriorate.

At only 36 square blocks, Love Canal was a tiny offshoot of Niagara Falls that allowed families to raise their children in small starter homes close to the city, while having space for them to run and play. Reminiscent of a scene from Madeleine L'Engle's classic "A Wrinkle in Time", Love Canal was a picturesque town filled with young families with all the houses looking like mirror copies to the ones on either side.

During the 1950s the neighborhood grew rapidly as the city populated experienced a boom. The streets were quiet and neighbors were friendly, but residents of Love Canal would soon find themselves in the midst of national media coverage.

The land that the community was built upon was immensely polluted by chemicals that had been dumped on the site by Hooker Electrochemical Company that had previously owned the site. Residents quickly began to fall ill with ailments that ranged from constant ear infections to fast growing cancer. It would later be revealed that the local government was well aware of the dangers that hid within the soil, but chose to turn a blind eye.

The Niagara Falls City School District had relentlessly pursued Hooker Electrochemical Company to purchase their property with hopes of building a new school. The company declined their initial offers citing health concerns, but eventually they relented and sold the land to the school district. At their own expense, the company took school board members on a tour of the site and made test borings in front of them to ensure that they knew that the soil was vastly contaminated, but the city continued with the purchase and later, construction of the school.

Hooker Chemical included a long caveat in the sales agreement to the city outlining the dangers of the land in ensure that they were aware of the ramifications, but also relinquishing any responsibility for the outcomes that would later plague the town. They stated that the land should be sealed off "so as to prevent the possibility of persons or animals coming in contact with the dumped materials." The school board decided to go forward with the development of the school anyway.

While constructing one of the two schools in the neighborhood, builders came across 55-gallon drums of toxic waste that had been buried by Hooker Chemical. In total, 22,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried on the site of this thriving community with none of the residents being any the wiser. Work continued on the construction of the school and as the neighborhood grew a second school was built a few blocks away.

Life continued as normal for those in Love Canal until 1976 when two reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette, David Pollak and David Russell, tested several sump pumps and found heavy traces of toxic chemicals. Still,the matter didn't gain much media attention until a couple of years later when reporter Michael Brown started to investigate the health risks of these chemicals and conducted a door-to-door survey in 1978.

A local mother, Lois Gibbs, began to rally homeowners after her son developed epilepsy and a number of other health issues. She would later become the voice of those left in the dark about the safety of the neighborhood, calling for an election to head the Love Canal Homeowners' Association.

Gibbs pursued officials to investigate the concerns of those living in the neighborhood, but nothing came of her efforts. Niagara Falls mayor, Michael O'Laughlin, was famously quoted as saying that there was "nothing wrong" with the area.

By the late 1970s residents across the neighborhood were experiencing a disturbingly high rate of miscarriages, cleft palates, nervous disorders, cancers and a slew of other issues. New York's Health Commissioner, Robert Whalen, later visited the area and strongly disagreed with the perspective of city officials.

"Love Canal Chemical Waste Landfill constitutes a public nuisance and an extremely serious threat and danger to the health, safety and welfare of those using it, living near it or exposed to the conditions emanating from it, consisting among other things, of chemical wastes lying exposed on the surface in numerous places pervasive, pernicious and obnoxious chemical vapors and fumes affecting both the ambient air and the homes of certain residents living near such sites," he said.

President Jimmy Carter announced a federal health emergency and called for the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to assist the City of Niagara Falls to fix the Love Canal site. This was the first time in the country's history that such funds were used for something other than a natural disaster.

In the following years, the schools were closed and almost all of the buildings on the land were demolished. The once thriving neighborhood was reduced to a prairie with nothing but abandoned sidewalks, acres of tall grass and a handful of street signs.

All 800 families were relocated and reimbursed for the price of their homes but some 90 families chose to stay. As the years went on, almost all of the families that once called the neighborhood home had chosen to leave.

Today almost nothing is left of Love Canal. The area is popular with amateur photographers who are hoping to captivate the eerie streets and the few remaining decrepit homes.

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Abandoned Homes


The neighborhood was abandoned and homes were left to rot. In time, the city demolished the majority of the structures on the site and it wasn't until 2004 that people were allowed to move back into the neighborhood.

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Starter Community


Families started to move to the suburb in the 1950s because it was seen as the perfect starter community.

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People Started Getting Sick


By the 1970s the community was thriving but many of its residents started to get sick. People were miscarrying at an alarming rate, developing cancer and other health problems. The local government was well aware of the health issues the public was facing, and was also aware that the land was severely polluted.

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Starting the Fight


The quaint community started to fall apart and residents wanted answers. Lois Gibbs became the spokesperson for her community. A single mother, Gibbs started to question the safety of her neighborhood when her son started to come down with ear infections on an oddly regular basis.

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Feeling Abandoned


Other residents started noticing odd smells coming from the ground and when it would rain, odd liquids would rise to the top. It all sounds like an episode from a science fiction show, but unfortunately what these families were going through was very real.

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Fighting for her Community


Gibbs continued to fight for the rights of her, her family and her neighbors throughout the years of legal battles with the city.

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Poisoning a Neighborhood


As it turns out, Hooker Electrochemical Company had dumped 22,000 barrels of toxic waste on their property, later selling it off to become a starter community. It was the chemicals that leached into the ground that started to make its way into the drinking water, soil and air that thousands of people came into contact with every day.

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Impact on Children


Not only that but there were two elementary schools built on the site, housing hundreds of students on a daily basis. Gibbs and many others fought hard to bring attention to these issues, finally gaining steam after the evidence mounted to beyond what could be denied any longer.

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Hooker Electrochemical Company


Hooker Electrochemical Company was initially pursued by Niagara Falls City School District because they were in desperate need of land to build an additional facility. At first the company denied their requests due to health concerns, but they eventually sold their land. In the sellers contract Hooker Electrochemical Company advised the school district to seal off the land to prevent any animals or humans from coming into contact with it as it could cause serious harm. The school built anyway and the housing developments followed.

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Once Discovered


Once the ball started rolling and people started to realize that there was a problem to be contended with, Love Canal started to get national attention. Due to the health issues that were occurring at an alarming rate the issue couldn't be denied any longer. City officials had to recognize and admit to what they had done, knowingly poison an entire community for financial gain.

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Gibbs and Locals Win Fight Against City


Finally, after years of fighting to be heard, President Jimmy Carter announced a federal health emergency and called for the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to assist the city of Niagara Falls in the clean up of Love Canal. This little, sleepy town officially became the first Superfund site in the United States. Due to the leakage of toxic chemicals nearly 800 families had to be relocated and reimbursed for their homes. Roughly 90 families chose to stay but as the years went on many ended up leaving.

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How it is Today

Courtesy of Wikipedia

As of today there is little that remains of Love Canal. Only a handful of houses remain and the sidewalks are overgrown, having been disregarded for nearly 40 years. It's become a favorite spot for photographers to walk the streets and capture the aftermath of a town that once was. While nothing much remains, Love Canal made a memorable imprint on the fabric of the area. 

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