Lessons from Love Canal: toxic expertise and environmental justice

August 7 marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of Love Canal. Toxins were discovered in the area in 2011, and new residents have reported unusual health problems. How can we prevent history repeating itself?

Alice Mah
7 August 2013
Love Canal today

Love Canal today. Credit: Mike Kalasnik, Flickr

Who remembers Love Canal? Many of us don’t. But it is important for us, collectively, to remember. In 1978, a leaking toxic dump with over 20,000 tons of chemical waste was discovered buried beneath an elementary school in the working class residential community of LaSalle in Niagara Falls, New York. The health effects for the residents were staggering, with high incidences of cancer, miscarriages, rare diseases, and birth defects. It was the first US state of emergency to be declared over a human-made disaster, and it was a sobering lesson about the effects of toxic pollution. Love Canal received international media attention and stands out as a significant turning point in the history of the global environmental justice movement.

Yet the memory and lessons of Love Canal seem to be fading with passing generations. The Bhopal and Chernobyl disasters of the 1980s will be remembered for generations to come. They are widely considered to be the worst industrial and nuclear accidents in history, with enduring health and environmental impacts to this day. Fewer people remember Love Canal. The scale of the disaster was less dramatic. It affected a small residential neighbourhood rather than hundreds of thousands of people. And it was a slow-burning disaster, a creeping horror simmering beneath the ground.

What can Love Canal tell us today? August 7 marks the 35th anniversary of the declaration of a state of emergency over Love Canal by US President Jimmy Carter.  Anniversaries are an appropriate time for reflecting on lessons from the past, or for recognising lessons that time brings to the surface. Ten years ago, on the 25th anniversary, a modest stone monument was erected on the disaster site at Ninety-three Street, with an engraved chronology of the history of Love Canal. Yet if you visit the site of the disaster today, there are few explicit clues in the landscape to mark its devastating history. A tall wire fence encloses the vast evacuated site, and the periphery remains eerily abandoned, with weeds sprouting through uneven concrete sidewalks, crumbling skeletons of houses, overgrown lawns, and roads that end abruptly in open fields. You would have to look carefully to find the monument. The Love Canal evacuated site was declared “safe” by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2004 and officially removed from the list of Superfund waste sites. A new “bargain” housing development soon emerged beside it, named Black Creek Village.

But the toxic legacies of Love Canal still linger: toxins were discovered in the area in 2011, and new residents have reported unusual health problems. Is history repeating itself?

Love Canal was not an accident. It was a case of gross corporate and municipal negligence. Originally a “dream” power canal project of the entrepreneur William Love at the turn of the 20th century, the Love Canal was abandoned before completion in 1910. Between 1942 and 1952, the canal was used as a toxic dump for chemical waste by Hooker Electrochemical Company, one of the first heavy industrial companies that grew up around the great natural resource of Niagara Falls. In 1953, Hooker Chemicals filled the canal and sold it to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1, which soon became the site of a new elementary school in the residential working class neighbourhood of LaSalle. The residents of this quiet residential suburb had no idea that it was built on top of a toxic chemical dump. For decades, residents noticed chemical smells and substances emerging in their yards, but they didn’t take action until 1978, when people started getting seriously ill.

Under the leadership of Lois Gibbs, residents fought a long, protracted battle for relocation and compensation. They fought against denials of the health effects of Love Canal from corporate, governmental and scientific “experts”. The residents did their own research, put pressure on the government to do testing, and gathered their own evidence, including numerous testimonies, reports and surveys of miscarriages, birth defects, deaths, cancers, and other illnesses of residents. The campaign led eventually to Carter’s declaration, the evacuation of residents, and the erection of a 10-foot high fence enclosing the contaminated area. Further legal, financial and scientific debates ensued concerning the scale and scope of the contamination, and how the Love Canal residents should be compensated. Ultimately, Lois Gibbs’ story was an inspiration to many other ordinary people, prompting them to fight the environmental problems harming their own communities.

Communities around the world have faced similarly protracted battles to provide evidence of the health risks of living and working in toxic areas. Over the past thirty-five years, the environmental justice movement has grown internationally, with a number of significant advances in legislation, legal cases, scholarship, activism, and organising. Activists and researchers have identified and challenged stark spatial patterns of environmental injustice and “environmental racism”, where chemical factories, toxic waste sites, and other environmental hazards have been deliberately situated amongst poor, marginalized and vulnerable populations.

Love Canal is important precisely because it is a lesson about how serious injustice and environmental calamity can be smoothed into the banal and everyday by “experts” and stakeholders with vested interests. There are numerous, overlooked Love Canals waiting to be exposed. It could happen to you and your community. It could already be happening.

The Environmental Protection Agency warned in 1979: “This is not really where the story ends. Quite the contrary. We suspect that there are hundreds of such chemical dumpsites across this Nation.”

Despite the enduring significance of the lessons of Love Canal for grassroots environmental activism, there remain a number of blind spots within the uneven geography of toxic waste. Around the world, there are contaminated, marginalized and disempowered communities without strong grassroots movements or leaders. This is important, and worrying.

During my research on the toxic legacies of the dozens of chemical factories of Niagara Falls in both New York and Ontario, I came across two of these places: the Highland Avenue African-American community in Niagara Falls, New York, and the working class community of Glenview-Silvertown, Niagara Falls, Ontario. Both low-income residential communities were living next to chemical brownfields with unknown or disputed levels of contamination. But despite the legacy of Love Canal, neither community supported strong environmental justice movements campaigning for change. The few concerned voices were scattered, and often had more immediate concerns to keep them occupied than the insidious environmental deterioration around them, such as procuring jobs and maintaining weakening social communities.

Outside of significant disasters with high numbers of fatalities and illnesses and strong levels of activism, the health impacts of toxic waste and emissions are notoriously difficult to prove, even within the field of epidemiology. The lack of “evidence” of health effects, despite shocking numbers of illnesses, miscarriages, and early deaths in these communities, has been frequently cited by corporations, governments, and a range of “experts” in justification for inertness and apathy.

Toxic Expertise

Love Canal presses on us a need to question the nature and justification of expertise and to ask where it fits in to the landscapes of injustice that surround environmental abuse. At the core of toxic expertise is the deeply fraught politics of making claims about expertise in relation to the environment and health.

The sociologist Stephen Turner writes about the significance of experts in modern society in relation to questions of democracy and equality. Experts have unusual authority through their claims to truth and knowledge, especially when non-experts have difficulty understanding the language they use. Expertise is political, related to different interests and biases, and by its nature is unequally distributed and organised across society. Debates about environmental knowledge and expertise, as geographer Sarah Whatmore suggests, are particularly controversial.

The story of Love Canal is a critical moment for understanding the politics of toxic expertise, both as a problem and as a resource. Gibbs argues in Love Canal: The Story Continues that: “People believe that no one has the right to make their family sick or their environment unsafe for any reason, certainly not because they are farmers, working class, poor, or live in communities of color. Nor is it fair that ordinary citizens are left with the burden of having to prove that they are sick from chemical exposures, while chemical corporations are presumed innocent of harming human health unless proven guilty.” One of the crucial missions of Lois Gibbs’ Center for Environment, Health and Justice, which developed out of the crisis and activism inspired by Love Canal, is to provide training and technical assistance for community members fighting environmental battles but who cannot afford to hire scientists and legal experts to defend their cases.

Debates about toxic expertise do not always fit within dichotomies: corporations versus communities, science versus anecdotal evidence, or corporate versus civil rights law. There are competing interests across employment, prosperity, and health, and different understandings and values of how to deal with risk and uncertainty. While Love Canal may be fading from international collective memory, it remains deeply imprinted in the collective memory of Niagara Falls. But it has a different resonance for local people than the media headlines would suggest.

Love Canal is not just a story about the effects of toxic pollution and corporate irresponsibility. It is also an ambivalent story of trauma, stigma and the beginning of industrial decline. Situated within the Rust Belt of North America, Niagara Falls never recovered from the deindustrialization of the 1970s and 1980s. Most of the chemical factories closed, jobs disappeared, and the economy shifted to rely primarily on tourism and the service sector. As one resident puts in, “We remember the bomb going off; we remember the Love Canal; we remember the plants closing; we remember our parents being out of work; that’s what people remember. They remember the fallout of the plants closing, the fallout from Love Canal”.

There are heated global scientific, legal and civic debates on the health impacts of living and working in toxic industrial areas, historical and contemporary. Take "Cancer Alley" in Louisiana, for example: an eighty-five mile petrochemical corridor of more than 150 petrochemical factories along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Many researchers and activists have noted the sad and almost unbelievable story of the transformation of the region, from slave plantations to petrochemical plants, where poor, rural African-Americans, descended from slaves, continue to live and work in conditions that are dehumanizing and that endanger their lives. Several environmental campaigns have been launched against these injustices, particularly in relation to environmental racism. Some notable victories have even been won in African-American communities along the petrochemical corridor in Louisiana, such as Diamond and Convent. However, these communities face powerful resistance from corporations and government lobbies, and the state continues to invest heavily in the petrochemical industry.

Toxic expertise has important implications for us all: for thinking more critically about how expertise is used and can be used, politically, in environmental justice movements, and in community life.

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