Colgate University First Year Seminar 39: Earth Resources

Term papers


The Love Canal

Kate Wolfe

December, 2000




(A History, 2000)



One of the most polluted environmental areas in the United States is centered in Niagara Falls, New York. This is the site of the infamous "Love Canal;" an area encompassing seventy acres, sixteen of which are designated as a hazardous landfill. The landfill holds over 21,000 tons of chemical wastes (LoveCanalUSEPA,2000). These wastes were dumped directly into the ground, and are the source of several environmental problems for the surrounding area. Because the chemicals were placed directly into the ground, neglecting precautionary steps, they are free to spread throughout the area and into the surrounding communities. Nearby inhabitants have been diagnosed with several diseases linked to chemicals from the landfill. The toxins and chemicals found in the Love Canal and the surrounding area have proven to be disastrous for both the environment and the health of the community (Brown, 1979).

William T. Love came to the Niagara Falls region of New York in the 1890’s with dreams of creating an industrialized area next to the Niagara River. He was an entrepreneur and hoped to build a hydroelectric power project (Love Canal USEPA,2000). His plan included creating a navigable power channel that would travel seven miles through the Upper Niagara region before dropping two hundred feet down the Niagara Falls ultimately providing inexpensive hydroelectric power. He wanted a city to be built near the river that would be able to hold half a million people. The people of Niagara region shared in Love’s ideal and enthusiasm. He was provided with every opportunity to achieve his goal. Love dug a large canal close to the Niagara River. However, the project proved to be unrealistic, as he did not have enough resources for completion and was forced to abandon the project.

The canal in 1938 was approximately 3,000 feet long and 100 feet wide from north to south with the most southern end only about 1,500 feet from the Niagara River (LoveCanal, 1981). It was unused and had supposedly been used at several times as a swimming hole for people in the area (History, 2000). In 1942, the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation, now Occidental Chemical, used the canal to dispose of their toxic wastes. Because of this, Hooker turned the canal into a landfill between 1942 and 1953; during which time his company placed 21,800 tons of chemical wastes into the ground. Some of the chemicals were in drums, of which leaked or broke apart when being dumped, while others were poured directly into the soil (Love Canal,1981). Sometimes, when contaminants leaked or were exposed to the earth, Hooker Co. covered them with cinders, ash, clay or loom in an attempt to minimize the spill (Mazur,1998). Hundreds of different chemicals were placed in the ground, many of which were highly dangerous and toxic. Among the chemicals disposed of were the following: Trichlororoethane, (Trichloromethyl) Benzene, Aluminum, Benzene, Chlorobenzene, Copper, Lead, PCB’s, Magnesium, Mercury, Nickel, and Zinc. This, however, is only a small list. Many of these chemicals can still be found in the groundwater, surface water, soil, air, and leachate (Internet,2000). An internal Hooker Co. memo written by a company engineer was found stating that the Love Canal was a "Quagmire which will be a potential source of lawsuits." (Love Canal History, 2000). Hooker’s employees became concerned as they noticed that children would come and play in sections of the landfill that weren’t being used for disposal but were, nevertheless, full of contaminated water (History, 2000). Hooker didn’t pay attention to their concerns even when the General Counsel of the project tried to persuade him to fence in the landfill to prevent injuries resulting from the children playing nearby. Hooker was aware of the manner in which the dumping was being handled that the drums were not preventing the contaminants from reaching the soil and that the drums quickly deteriorated. Hooker also knew that the subsurface would shift thereby exposing them and bringing the chemicals to the surface (Love Canal History, 2000). Upon reaching the surface, these toxins would often catch fire and cause explosions at the site endangering the workers and people nearby (Mazur,1998).

In 1952, the school board in Niagara Falls asked the Hooker Co. to purchase a section of the Love Canal in order to build an elementary school. Hooker tried to stop the School Board from purchasing the land. He said that the "property was not suitable for the erection of school buildings." (Mazur,1998). He felt that it would be too risky to sell the land. It was agreed that a school could be built on the central section of the Canal, which had never been filled, and that the sections that had been filled with chemicals could be used for the school campus and playing fields. On April 28, 1953 Hooker sold the entire area to the School Board for one dollar. The deed of sale to the School Board from Hooker Co. shows that they did warn the school board of the risks and that only a school and playing fields should be build on their land. (Mazur,1998) The school board, in 1957, sold a portion of the land at the southern end of their property to developers who were planning on constructing houses. Between 1957 and 1962, the city of Niagara Falls dug storm sewers on the land sold to them by the school board. They did this without realizing that this would only provide pathways for the various chemicals to surface as well as spread underground. (Mazur, 1998).

By the 1970’s, more houses were springing up in the Niagara Falls area. They were houses bought for about $18,000-$23,000 in the early 1970’s by middle class working families. (Levine, 1982). The houses were being built closer to the canal than previous houses had been. Because the homes weren’t bought from either Hooker or the school board, there was nothing on the property deed warning the buyers of the chemicals nearby or the possible health hazards of living in the area. All of the underground tunnels, channels, and pipelines that a regular community would have installed were also built in the love canal area. One man who was employed to put a street in across the canal site stated "When they started putting that street through, that’s when I became aware of what was in there because the fumes would make your skin real itchy and irritated and break out in all little blisters." (Levine,1982). During the mid-1970’s, the area received more snow and rainfall than usual. At this time, unrest within community skyrocketed because of the increasing odor. Due to the excessive rainfall, groundwater traveled through their backyards and into their basements until the toxins vaporized into the air they were breathing. (History, 2000).

No one was informed and no research was conducted on the area until 1976. Fish from Lake Ontario were deemed unsafe to be eaten after the International Joint Commission, a group which checks the conditions of the Great Lakes, found traces of the insecticide Mirex in the fish. The source of the insecticide was then linked to the 102nd Street dump site in Niagara Falls which is right next to the Love Canal (Levine,1982). After this incident, journalists and the news media started calling attention to the area. They listened to the people’s complaints as well as did research on what the history of the site was. Even the city’s newspaper, "The Niagara Gazette" wrote a front-page story on the contamination. The Hooker Corporation, however, repeatedly denied any responsibility for the problem because the site was no longer theirs. They agreed to work with the City of Niagara Falls to try to fix the problem. However the city didn’t have the equipment needed nor the professional knowledge to assess the area; so, in April of 1977, they hired the Calspan Corporation to help (Levine,1982). Upon developing a plan for reducing the pollution in the groundwater, they realized the extent of their problem. By this time, the toxins had been detected in the neighborhood creeks, sewer lines, soil, sump pumps, basements of homes, and the indoor air of homes (Love Canal History,2000).

In the spring of 1978, the State of New York was forced to get involved in the situation. There were 99 homes with backyards, which ran into a part of the canal. The total number of people living in these homes was 230 adults and 134 children. There were 410 students enrolled in the 93rd St. Elementary School. (Love Canal,1981). Additionally, there were also 2,618 people living in the communities around the immediate area of the canal. The Governor of New York created a task force on August 3,1978 in an attempt to solve the problem. The task force’s main jobs were to relocate the affected families, build a drainage system to stop the further movement of chemicals, and to continue the environmental testing and health studies in the area (Love Canal, 1981).


The different areas surrounding the canal (A History, 2000)


On August 7, 1978, President Carter forced the evacuation of 239 families. (Key Dates, 2000). However, he told the people living in the left ten-block area that they were at no risk. A ten-foot tall fence was erected around the evacuated area to keep the residents and the canal separated. Residents picketed the canal everyday to show their anger and disgust. People who lived in the areas surrounding the contaminated sites wanted to be relocated also. They were given concessions such as $200,000 to help cover medical expenses (A History,2000). This wasn’t enough however, and the residents were still angry. Studies conducted showed numerous diseases in the area. Many of the people affected were in the path of waterways that ran through the canal thus bringing them into contact with many of the chemicals from the site. The people had high incidence of miscarriages, birth defects and chromosome damage, along with a variety of other health problems (6 rms, 1997).

To try to fix this environmental disaster a cleanup plan was put into effect. One of the first steps was to "stop the leaching, to prevent future leaching, and to cover the canal up tightly" (Levine, 1982). Different levels of government, over the course of twenty years, had spent $250 million dollars to help solve this disaster. One of the plans for cleanup is shown below:

(A History , 2000)


This diagram shows drainage pipes that were installed on the surface and in the ground. These pipes are supposed to take the chemicals away from the homes and off the surface hopefully directing them away from the area. There was also a focus on cleaning up the sewers and creeks. Sewers were inspected and contaminated sediments were removed. The contaminants were then treated and contained. The contaminated pipes in the soil were replaced and new pipes were installed. (Love Canal USEPA,2000). The canal was also covered with an eight-foot thick clay cap to keep rainwater out.

In 1988, the federal government said that some areas of the love canal were now inhabitable although there are still some areas, which are condemned and not habitable. Areas deemed safe to humans were renamed, make them more appealing to customers, and sold 15-20% below market price (6 rms,1997). By 1997, there was a waiting list for people to move into the renovated homes because of the affordable pricing. Many people have bought the cheap houses, renovated them, and have forgotten about the hazardous site which lies only miles away from them. However, the EPA has proved that low levels of chemicals are still in the soil. They also say that many other samples taken show nothing significant and that similar levels are found in many other residential areas (6 rms, 1997).

The site of the Love Canal remains and the destruction of the area will not be forgotten. It is one of the best examples of what can happen when the environment is carelessly altered and contaminated. This environmental problem was so severe it effected the entire city of Niagara Falls and many of the people who lived there. The lives of those who inhabited the area during the 1950’s through the 1970’s had been altered without their knowledge. This case study shows that pollution does have serious effects and can not be overlooked.


Works Cited

( 2000, November, 11 ) A History of the Love Canal. [Online]. Available:


Brown, H. M. (1989). A Toxic Ghost Town. Atlantic Monthly, 264, 23-28.


Brown, H. M. (1979). Love Canal and the Poisoning of America. Atlantic Monthly, 244, 33-47.


(2000, November, 9) Internet HazDat-Site Contaminants List. [Online]. Available:


Key Dates and Events at Love Canal [Online]. Available:


Levine, A (1982). Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. D.C.: Lexington Books


Love Canal: A Special Report to the Governor and Legislature. (1981). (2000, November,9) Love Canal History [Online]. Available:


(2000,October,24) Love Canal. United States Environmental Protection Agency [Online]. Available:


Mazur, A. (1998). A Hazardous Inquiry- the Rashomon Effect at Love Canal. Harvard University Press (p.3-225).


(1997, September 15). 6 rms. toxic canal vu. U.S. News Online. [Online]. Available: