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Government & Policy

November 17, 2008
Volume 86, Number 46
pp. 46-53


Happy Birthday, Love Canal

It's been 30 years since the neighborhood surrounding America's most famous toxic waste dump was evacuated, yet its legacy is still unfolding

Erika Engelhaupt, Environmental Science & Technology

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Love Canal

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Forbidden Love Canal remains behind a chain-link fence today. ERIKA ENGELHAUPT/ES&T
Forbidden Love Canal remains behind a chain-link fence today.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y.—In the middle of an abandoned suburban neighborhood, a long grassy mound pokes up a few feet higher than the cracked streets surrounding it. A green chain-link fence surrounds the small hill, which is covered with wildflowers in summer—lavender chicory and small yellow daisies. The fence has no warning sign—not anymore—but this is Love Canal, the toxic waste dump that became synonymous with environmental disaster 30 years ago.

Adeline Levine, a sociologist who wrote a book about Love Canal, described to me the scene she had witnessed exactly 30 years earlier, on Aug. 11, 1978. "It was like a Hitchcock movie," she said, "where everything looks peaceful and pleasant, but something is slumbering under the ground."

That "something" was more than 21,000 tons of chemical waste. The mixed brew contained more than 200 different chemicals, many of them toxic. They were dumped into the canal—which was really more of a half-mile-long pond—in the 1940s and 1950s by the Hooker Electrochemical Co. In 1953, the canal was covered with soil and sold to the local school board, and an elementary school and playground were built on the site. A working-class neighborhood sprang up around them.

Editor's Note

This article is reproduced from Environ. Sci. Technol. 2008, 42(22), 8179–8186.

"The neighborhood looked very pleasant," says Levine, who was a sociology professor at the State University of New York, Buffalo, in 1978. "There were very nice little homes, nicely kept, with gardens and flowers and fences and kids' toys, and then there were young people who were rushing out of their homes with bundles and packing up their cars and moving vans."

Love Canal was in the midst of an all-out panic when Levine arrived; just nine days earlier, the state health commissioner had declared an emergency and recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of two evacuate the neighborhood. A week after that, the state and federal governments agreed to buy out homes next to the canal.

Levine spent all day interviewing people and was soon obsessed with their plight. Residents spoke of miscarriages, cancers, and children born with birth defects. She spent her vacation in New York City the next month knocking on doors and getting turned down for grants by foundations that couldn't imagine why a sociologist would want to study an environmental problem. By that time, the entire country was watching the drama of the Love Canal neighborhood play out on their TV screens.

I was four years old at the time, and I don't remember a thing. But later, as a teenager in the late 1980s, I lived about 2 miles from Love Canal as the crow flies, on Grand Island, a literal suburban island in the Niagara River. My father remembered Love Canal, and before he took an engineering job in the area, he asked how far away it was. He wasn't too happy to learn that he would be living nearly within sight of it across the river. Even a decade after the neighborhood's plight hit the news, the words "Love Canal" seemed to be stamped on our brains in shrieking orange capital letters—just as Bhopal, Chernobyl, and Three Mile Island would later be.

After the summer of 1978 came the buyout of some 900 homes; years of legal battles and disputed health studies; the formation of the Superfund cleanup program, which for the first time called on businesses to pay for pollution cleanups; and a new awareness of the dangers of living with chemical waste. Levine's book about Love Canal became a seminal work in a new field, environmental sociology.

But in the beginning there was just a neighborhood that didn't even think of itself as Love Canal. The dump only came to define the LaSalle neighborhood after 1978, when the world learned about the toxic waste buried there.

From Above An infrared aerial view of Love Canal in 1978 shows the 99th Street School (center left) and white patches of barren soil where plants would not grow, presumably a result of chemical contamination. USED WITH PERMISSION OF NYSDOH
From Above An infrared aerial view of Love Canal in 1978 shows the 99th Street School (center left) and white patches of barren soil where plants would not grow, presumably a result of chemical contamination.

A CANAL CALLED LOVE. Love Canal got its name from William T. Love, an entrepreneur and developer in Niagara Falls in the late 1800s. The electrochemical industry was drawn to the waterfall because it generated cheap hydroelectric power to feed its electricity-hungry manufacturing processes. And Love had a deal for them. He would build an industrial city, called "Model City" in the optimism of the day, centered on a canal connected to the Niagara River. He started digging in the 1890s.

Love's dream collapsed after the inventor Nikola Tesla came up with alternating-current electricity, which could travel farther by wire than direct current and obviated the need for factories to locate near the falls. The canal Love left behind became a half-mile-long swimming hole. But later, Elon Hooker decided to locate his electrochemical company near the canal, and the business eventually became the largest industrial enterprise in town, making chemicals and plastics.

In 1941, Hooker Chemical (which underwent various name changes and was later bought by Occidental Chemical Corp.) decided to use Love's canal for waste disposal. The canal was nearby in what was then a sparsely populated area, and the soil was largely composed of impermeable clay that Hooker's engineers thought would contain the chemicals well. From about 1942 to 1953, Hooker disposed of thousands of tons of chemical waste there, some of it loose and some in metal drums.

No one knows exactly what Hooker dumped, but perhaps one-quarter of the waste was benzene hexachloride, the main component of the pesticide lindane, a neurotoxin. There were chlorobenzenes (used in the synthesis of DDT) and dozens of other organic chemicals, many of which were known to be toxic. The waste also contained an estimated 120 lb of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin, commonly called dioxin, which is a by-product of trichlorophenol manufacture. At the time dioxin was buried at Love Canal, it was not thought to cause disease, but it is now known as one of the most carcinogenic chemicals in the world. In those days, Hooker's landfill methods were legal and quite common; companies were allowed to dump waste in almost any manner, as long as they owned the land on which they dumped.

Black Goo Bubbles of chemicals would appear in the ground when chemical drums burst; shown is a sinkhole in 1978. COURTESY OF ADELINE LEVINE AND UNIVERSITY ARCHIVES, THE UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO, SUNY
Black Goo Bubbles of chemicals would appear in the ground when chemical drums burst; shown is a sinkhole in 1978.

TOXIC BUBBLES. Sylvia Jean Gondek grew up next to the canal while Hooker was dumping. Her family moved into the Griffon Manor housing project around the beginning of 1946, joining the flood of returning GIs and their families after World War II. Their neat white row house was located at 2604 Frontier Ave., adjacent to the southern end of the canal, where Hooker had concentrated its dumping.

She remembers Love Canal as basically a playground for the neighborhood kids. "What you saw from the projects was a big mound of dirt," Gondek says. "We would play cowboys and Indians there, and in the winter we would slide down the sides in our sleds. The back side [of the mound] was an open water area, which was supposed to be taboo, but the older boys would swim in the canal and play on the drums, which my sister and I never did do."

In 1953, Hooker sold the canal to the Niagara Falls school board for a token dollar, with a warning that the site contained chemicals that should not be disturbed by digging. However, it was agreed that a school (with no basement) and a playground would be acceptable. The site was supposed to be covered with several feet of clay to contain the chemicals, but later testing found only a few inches of soil covering metal drums in some areas.

Chemicals soon started rising to the soil's surface, Gondek recalls. "We kids would go over [by the canal], and you would see a bubble form—oh, I would say about 9 to 12 inches in diameter," she says. Kids would quickly gather up stones to throw into the chemical-filled hole. They didn't know it, but the bubbles formed when a metal drum of chemicals rusted through and broke underground. The soil above it would collapse into the drum and force chemicals to the surface; then the sides of the hole would close back up after a minute or two. "It would open up sort of in slow motion, and then it would break, like a bubble would, and then you would throw the stones in. It was a game we played." The kids didn't think about whether it was dangerous. "As a child, you shouldn't have to."

Going To School Sylvia Jean Gondek (right) and other neighborhood kids are ready for their first day of school in the late 1940s. They used Love Canal as a playground. COURTESY OF SYLVIA JEAN GONDEK
Going To School Sylvia Jean Gondek (right) and other neighborhood kids are ready for their first day of school in the late 1940s. They used Love Canal as a playground.

Gondek moved away from Love Canal at age 12 in 1955. Years later, her third son was born with what her doctor described as a birth defect in both eyes; his vision cannot be fully corrected with glasses, which kept him out of military service. She wonders whether her chemical exposure could have caused it. "I'll never know," she says.

A lot of people who moved away from Love Canal in the '50s and '60s felt guilty about the possibility that they might have harmed their children inadvertently, says Levine, the sociologist. "When I interviewed them, they would say, 'I know it doesn't make sense because I didn't know about the chemicals, but I feel like it was my fault somehow,' " she tells me.

A number of studies, including both peer-reviewed research and informal surveys, have found unusually high rates of congenital malformations, or birth defects, in children born to mothers who lived at Love Canal. However, it's impossible to say whether any one instance was tied to chemicals. And Gondek never had any medical tests for chemical exposure until 1978, when the situation in Love Canal gained national attention. At that time, tests could not detect very low levels of chemicals remaining in blood so long after exposure, so Gondek's blood was tested in the same way as that of many other Love Canal residents: for liver enzymes that would indicate possible damage by chemicals to the liver. Her doctor told her she was fine.

THE SUMMER OF 1978. Michael Brown, a reporter at the Niagara Falls Gazette, wrote a couple of stories in May of 1978 about the wastes buried at Love Canal. A young housewife named Lois Gibbs noticed them in the paper. She lived three blocks from the canal, which she figured was too far away for the chemicals to affect her, but out of curiosity she took one of the articles to her brother-in-law, who was a biology professor. When he told her that some of the chemicals listed can affect the nervous system, Gibbs thought about her 5-year-old son Michael's epilepsy and about his growing list of other health issues, including asthma, liver problems, and a urinary disorder, all of which developed after moving to Love Canal. Michael was in kindergarten at the 99th Street School—the school that had been built directly on top of the dump. Gibbs tried unsuccessfully to convince the school superintendent to transfer Michael to another school.

Meanwhile, unusually heavy snow and rain in 1976 and 1977 had raised the water table and flushed more chemicals out of the canal. "The plastic liner of Mrs. Schroeder's swimming pool popped right out of the ground [because of water pressure]," Gibbs says, referring to Karen Schroeder, who lived on 99th Street right next to the canal. In some homes, multicolored chemicals were seeping through the concrete walls of basements.

At the time, scientists were just beginning to seriously study the effects of living in contaminated areas for long periods of time—chronic low-dose exposure. Most previous studies had focused instead on workplace exposure, where people were breathing or handling concentrated doses. As a result, the first health officials to begin talking to Love Canal residents had little specific information about health risks. Their advice to families who were seeing and smelling chemicals in their basements was to stay out of the basement, just in case.

The Jarzab family home, next to the canal and school, had high benzene levels in the basement. COURTESY OF FRED & BARBARA JARZAB
Play Catch The Jarzab family home, next to the canal and school, had high benzene levels in the basement.

So residents at Love Canal started tallying illnesses for themselves, Gibbs says, and they found alarming numbers of miscarriages, birth defects, and illnesses in the neighborhood. Amid growing complaints, the U.S. EPA and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation stepped in to test the air in basements of homes bordering the canal. They found benzene levels up to six times higher than federal limits in some cases.

Fred and Barbara Jarzab's home on 97th Street was one of those tested. The Jarzabs lived near the north end of the canal, where fewer chemicals had been dumped, and they had never noticed any chemicals in the basement. So Fred wasn't too worried when EPA installed an analyzer in the basement. Then, while he was out of town on a business trip, Barb called him and said they had told her the basement had dangerous levels of benzene and toluene. She wasn't sure what it all meant, but they had told her not to let the kids go into the basement. When I asked if she kept going to the basement, Barb said she had to; the washer and dryer were down there. "She held her breath," Fred added.

On May 19, about a hundred residents attended an emotional public meeting at the 99th Street School. State and local health officials openly disagreed about the severity of the health risks posed by the chemicals, and the meeting devolved into chaos. Frightened residents couldn't sell their homes and couldn't afford to abandon them. "The banks wouldn't give loans on those houses," Gibbs says. "You were literally stuck there." Meanwhile, the health and contamination studies continued.

The state health department released its preliminary findings in July, confirming residents' fears that women living near the southern end of the canal were experiencing greater than normal rates of miscarriage and birth defects. Karen Schroeder, whose swimming pool had emerged from the ground, told the Niagara Gazette that her knees shook when she heard the results. After living near the canal for years, she had given birth to a daughter who was mentally retarded, deaf, and had a cleft palate and a double row of bottom teeth.

On Aug. 2, 1978, state health commissioner Robert Whalen announced a state of emergency at Love Canal and recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of two temporarily move, as soon as possible, but did not offer any financial help. The neighborhood nearly rioted. A public meeting the next night became a shouting match between residents and officials. One man reportedly fell to the ground weeping after pleading with officials to move his children.

Within days, the governor announced that the state would buy the 239 homes closest to the canal, those on the two so-called inner rings, including the Jarzabs' house. The Jarzabs spoke to me over coffee in the house they moved to from Love Canal nearly 30 years ago. The quiet cul-de-sac on Grand Island feels very far from the chain-link fence, although it's only a few miles away. The state gave them a fair price for their house, they say, and they got plenty of help with moving. "We told the realtor we didn't want to be anywhere near a chemical dump, so she had a map showing where they were, and there was nothing on Grand Island," Barbara says. The island, with its favorable winds carrying away the smell of Niagara Falls industries, became a refuge for many Love Canal evacuees.

A playground that was built for the newly refurbished neighborhood sits just outside the Love Canal fence. ERIKA ENGELHAUPT/ES&T
Superfun A playground that was built for the newly refurbished neighborhood sits just outside the Love Canal fence.

THE SECOND STORM. Gibbs, the homeowner activist, was left behind in the 1978 evacuation and became president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association. She continued fighting to convince the state and federal government to buy outer-ring homes as well. The health department and EPA argued that they had no evidence that chemicals were affecting homes beyond the first two rings; environmental testing in the outer rings found levels 1,000-fold lower than occupational safety limits. But those limits were not intended as residential standards, and it was unclear whether the levels were hazardous. "It was really scary," Gibbs says. "We needed the health department to say what the health risks were."

Gibbs, working with cancer researcher Beverly Paigen of Roswell Memorial Institute, developed a hypothesis that chemicals were migrating farther from the canal along swales, natural depressions created by old streambeds and ponds that had been filled in. Gibbs and Paigen mapped out higher illness rates among people living along swales. But the "swale theory," as it became known, was controversial, and environmental testing along swales could not initially confirm it.

The final decision to purchase the remaining homes at Love Canal came in May of 1980, after sources leaked the results of an EPA pilot study on genetic damage that found that chromosomes were abnormally ring-shaped or acrocentric (meaning one part of the chromosome was shortened) in 11 of 36 people tested. Media coverage of Love Canal peaked, and the homeowners detained two visiting EPA officials (the press called them "hostages") in an effort to draw more attention to their situation. The chromosome study had used no control group, and many scientists disputed the medical significance of the abnormalities, but the specter of genetic damage pushed the state to speed its buyout of approximately 700 more homes. Finally, President Jimmy Carter agreed to evacuate the residents, and Gibbs and her neighbors were able to move out.

The abandoned homes in the inner rings were bulldozed in 1982, and in 1988 the New York state health commissioner, David Axelrod, declared the area north of the canal to be safe for habitation based on an interagency review overseen by EPA. The Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency refurbished the empty homes north of the canal in the 1990s and sold them for 20% below market value, with waivers of liability for contamination.

At the same time, the state deemed the area east of the canal and south of Colvin Boulevard to be "uninhabitable" because of higher contaminant levels. This meant the area would not be redeveloped, but commissioner Axelrod said that the contamination was not an immediate health threat to the few residents still living in the area.

The 20,000-plus tons of chemicals buried at Love Canal are there to this day; EPA deemed it too dangerous to try to remove them. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation installed a leachate collection system to capture any rainwater that filtered through the canal. The canal area, including the land where houses on the two inner rings had been razed, was capped and fenced, and a leachate treatment plant was built. EPA added a synthetic barrier layer to the site in 1982 and improved and expanded the treatment system.

Occidental Petroleum (Hooker's parent company) was found liable for the Superfund cleanup and settled a lawsuit with residents for $20 million. Of that, $3 million went to a follow-up health study, $1 million to a medical trust fund, and what remained after the lawyers' take was divided among residents based on judgments of individual health damages.

HEALTH EFFECTS. Gibbs and many of the residents of the outer rings came to deeply resent what they saw as a runaround by the state health department. Gibbs says she was told that the information she collected on neighborhood illness amounted to "useless housewife data." Her idea about swales carrying chemicals was refuted publicly, only to be partly vindicated in later comparisons by the department that found higher illness rates in "wet" versus "dry" locations. The health department, in turn, maintained that they were doing their best with the scientific tools they had.

Homeless Love Canal in 1980 (left) and 2002, after homes were razed. NOAA (BOTH)
Homeless Love Canal in 1980 (left) and 2002, after homes were razed.

The residents' basic question—How did Love Canal affect their health?—is still in some dispute today. The New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) has been working on a follow-up health study for nearly 10 years. A public draft of the report was posted on the agency website in October 2006, but the work was then split into four studies, which the agency is submitting to peer-reviewed journals. One paper, which outlines mortality in Love Canal residents, has been submitted for publication, but none have yet been published.

I spoke with Nancy Kim, acting director of the health department's environmental health center, and Edward Fitzgerald, the principal investigator of the follow-up study. They were reluctant to discuss their results because the peer-review process is not complete, and they noted that the main issues being addressed surround the interpretation and discussion of the data.

The study compared the health of Love Canal residents to that of people living in New York state and Niagara County. The study used state registry data for more than 6,000 people who lived near Love Canal between 1942 and 1978, but included only people who were located and interviewed in 1978. The registries generally provide reliable data but lack data on many kinds of illnesses and on birth defects before 1983, cancers before 1979, and illnesses after residents moved out of state.

The study has been criticized, particularly by Gibbs's organization, for relying on the limited registry data instead of reinterviewing residents to get a more complete health picture. Kim and Fitzgerald say that the department considered interviews but was afraid that residents wouldn't participate. Stephen Lester, a scientist who has acted as a community liaison at Love Canal since 1978, represented community interests on an advisory panel at the beginning of the follow-up study. Lester is now the science director for the Center for Health, Environment & Justice (CHEJ), an advocacy group directed by Gibbs. He agrees that participation was an issue, because an attempt in the 1980s had garnered little but hostility from residents. "The community had lost all faith and trust in the state health department and wanted nothing to do with them," he says. "I said it wouldn't be easy, but if they could engage the community first and let them do the outreach instead of the health department, you could do something meaningful."

Despite the conservative approach used, which the health department acknowledges is biased toward underestimating health effects, some striking results emerged in the draft report. Children born at Love Canal were twice as likely as other children in other parts of the county to be born with a birth defect, a statistically significant finding. Children conceived at Love Canal were more than twice as likely to be female compared with children conceived after the mother left the neighborhood. This is consistent with findings in Seveso, Italy, where more girls were born to fathers (but not mothers in that case) who were exposed to a dioxin cloud released in a pesticide plant accident in 1976.

The draft also reported elevated rates of kidney, bladder, and lung cancers at Love Canal, though few of the comparisons were statistically significant. The language of the report tends to be conservative in describing the severity or strength of effects, emphasizing the relatively small number of data points.

The final studies will include some new statistical analyses of the levels of chemicals in residents' blood, based on blood samples collected in 1978 and stored by the health department. The study used methods that were not available in 1978 to detect part-per-billion concentrations of chemicals (gas chromatography with microelectron capture detection and mass spectrometry).

Everybody Out More than 900 homes were evacuated in 1978 and 1980. RHONDA SAUNDERS/MODIFIED FROM ENVIRON. SCI. TECHNOL. 16 (9), 500A–501A
View Enlarged Image
Everybody Out More than 900 homes were evacuated in 1978 and 1980.

LESSONS LEARNED, AND NOT LEARNED. Stephen Lester arrived at Love Canal on Oct. 10, 1978, the day the state's cleanup work was set to begin, as an environmental consultant assigned to represent community interests during construction of the leachate containment system. He saw buses idling on street corners throughout the neighborhood, ready to sweep people away if a bulldozer ruptured a tank and sent toxic fumes into the air. Residents were horrified and scared. Signs were posted on homes around the community reading "Give me liberty—I've already got death" and "Evacuate us now!"

Love Canal serves today as a case study of the pitfalls confronting agencies working with the public. The health department's relationship with residents soured early, when officials either could not or would not provide straight answers and came across to residents as condescending. Particularly for homeowners in the outer rings—stuck in unsellable homes and afraid of the health consequences of staying—there was a widespread feeling that the public-health system, including the scientists, was failing them.

"At Love Canal, people were given slips of paper listing levels of six or seven chemicals found in their basements," Lester says. "People wanted to know, 'What does this mean? Does this mean I'm going to get cancer, or will my kids get sick?' I remember one woman in particular—I told her, 'I can't say what this means for you as an individual, I can only tell you in general what the risks are.' She said to me, 'We can put a man on the moon, and you're telling me that we don't know what these chemicals are going to do to us?'

"Here we are 30 years later, and we still don't have a government agency capable of taking on health problems in communities and answering people's questions about their health," Lester says. Part of the problem is that the basic toolbox for environmental health studies has barely changed in 30 years, he notes. Although analytical methods for detecting low levels of chemicals have improved, the general approaches for studying community health—surveys, registry data, and epidemiological analyses—have remained much the same. How much better could the methods really be? "The tools are limited. But a lack of political will has prevented anyone from really thinking out of the box and applying different approaches."

In contrast, public participation, when done well, has improved federal agencies' decision-making, according to a report released in August by the National Research Council. Since Love Canal, and largely spurred by it, citizens' groups have demanded more inclusion in decisions that affect their communities, such as the cleanup of Superfund sites. Some form of public participation is often required by law now, though it often takes the limited role of public information-gathering meetings.

Cleanup The 1978 proposal for collection and treatment of contaminated leachate leaving the canal. NYSDOH
Cleanup The 1978 proposal for collection and treatment of contaminated leachate leaving the canal.

LOVE CANAL'S LEGACY. The crisis at Love Canal spurred some immediate change. In New York, the state health system was prompted to create a registry of birth defects.

Love Canal also spawned the Superfund law. In 1980, President Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation & Liability Act, creating a fund paid into by waste generators for cleanup of the nation's most toxic sites. The program is nearly out of money now and has a huge backlog of sites needing cleanup, but it established the "polluter pays" concept.

Today, nearly half of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of one of the EPA's 1,304 active and proposed Superfund sites, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit group dedicated to investigative journalism.

And environmental scientists continue to uncover the long-term health effects of chemical exposure. Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (including dioxin), which were virtually unknown in 1978, are currently one of the hottest topics in environmental health science. Researchers have found that, in some cases, these chemicals can cause reproductive effects that carry forward for multiple generations. The follow-up health study of Love Canal finds a disturbing trend that echoes that pattern: Children born to mothers who lived on the canal during pregnancy have increased risk of adverse pregnancy outcomes themselves later in life, including low birth weight, preterm birth, and babies born small for their gestational age.

Perhaps most importantly, Love Canal inspired a generation of activists like Erin Brokovich to take on environmental problems in their communities. "It took the environmental movement back to the grass roots," says Levine, after a decade when environmental battles were waged increasingly in court and out of the public forum.

American Dream? George Kreutz (far left) and his family have a view of Love Canal from their backyard; (left) illegal dumping in his backyard. ERIKA ENGELHAUPT/ES&T (BOTH)
American Dream? George Kreutz (far left) and his family have a view of Love Canal from their backyard; (left) illegal dumping in his backyard.

LOVE CANAL TODAY. George Kreutz and his three young boys live on 101st Street, in a part of the Love Canal neighborhood that had the highest contamination levels. The area was deemed uninhabitable by the state health commissioner in 1988; new houses cannot be built there, but people can continue living in the ones left standing by homeowners who chose not to evacuate. When Kreutz and his girlfriend rented the small blue house in December 2007, he says he had no idea Love Canal was in his backyard. The chain-link fence is visible just across the street.

Kreutz says he didn't think much about all the open space in the neighborhood when he moved in. "It just looked like a field," he says. He adds that he's happy with the house, which he calls immaculate except for the weeds sprouting from the gutters. It's quiet, the rent is cheap, and the only real problem he noticed was a lot of illegal dumping among the tall weeds (an entire pallet of phone books rests a few steps beyond his neatly mowed yard).

Kreutz, 33, grew up in Florida and had never heard of Love Canal until he moved in. When people mentioned it, he did an Internet search. "When I put Love Canal in the computer, it just blew up on my computer screen." At that point, Kreutz got nervous about living there with his sons, aged five, two, and 10 months.

While George and I talk in his driveway in front of the disassembled car he was working on, his towheaded older boy comes outside. He bounces a ball and walks slowly around the small front yard. "Do you worry about letting the kids play outside?" I ask. "They're not allowed outside the mowed area," he says. "I would never have put my children in that situation if I had known about it," he adds. He plans to move as soon as he can afford to.

The rest of Niagara Falls has not fared much better. Today, my drive through the area is a tour of industrial smells—rubber, sewage treatment, and various shades of acrid and sour odors near the chemical plants. And then I start noticing the landfills—they seem to rise up everywhere. The region is home to more landfills than just about anywhere else in the nation, including some of the largest toxic waste landfills. Residents of nearby Lewiston and Porter are currently fighting for cleanup of the former Lake Ontario Ordnance Works, a landfill and hazardous waste storage site containing about 8 million metric tons of hazardous waste, including PCBs and radioactive waste dating back to the Manhattan Project.

Then And Now Lois Gibbs, a homeowner and activist, shows a tree that marks the site of her former home; above, she holds her daughter in 1978. KATIE SCHNEIDER (LEFT), ERIKA ENGELHAUPT/ES&T (RIGHT)
Then And Now Lois Gibbs, a homeowner and activist, shows a tree that marks the site of her former home; left, she holds her daughter in 1978.

LOIS GIBBS TODAY. Large framed black-and-white prints hang on the back wall of Gibbs's office at CHEJ, showing kids at Love Canal and kids in other towns with their own tragedies. Gibbs was there for all of them. She is petite, with lively green eyes that add to the impression she is much younger than she is. She has a way of drawing people in and making them feel like part of something, and it is easy to see how her magnetic charm, combined with what she describes as an Irish no-nonsense practicality, helped make her into a leader.

But this is only in retrospect. In 1978, Gibbs was a quiet housewife with a high-school education. "You know," she says, "I was from Grand Island. There, either you're really out there [waving her arms above her head to paint a picture of the kind of wackiness that passes for renegade in small towns] or you're really shy. I was shy." When she decided to reach out to neighbors, she didn't know how to act or what to say. So she wrote up a petition calling for closing the 99th Street School and decided to imitate what she had seen other petitioners do: She started knocking on doors.

So many people called her after Love Canal looking for advice about hazards in their neighborhoods that Gibbs decided to make it a full-time job. She moved to the Washington, D.C., area and established CHEJ to help communities organize against environmental threats.

Despite the lessons that should have been learned from Love Canal, Gibbs says toxic waste continues to threaten schoolchildren. A 2005 study by CHEJ found half a million children attending schools within half a mile of toxic waste dumps in just four states—New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan. Only seven states have laws prohibiting the construction of schools on or near hazardous waste sites.

She says she's sad when she sees her old neighborhood at Love Canal so quiet now; in her memories, Love Canal is a thriving neighborhood chock-full of kids barreling along on Big Wheel tricycles and walking home from school for lunch, giggling and yelling. "The thing about Love Canal is, I loved that community," she says.

Gibbs's house on 101st Street was reduced to rubble long ago, but a huge evergreen tree stands in what used to be her front yard. Touring her old neighborhood this summer, she points the tree out proudly to a small flock of reporters. She and her son Michael planted the tree when they moved in, planning to decorate it each Christmas. "It withstood all of this," she says, adding that now it reminds her where she lived. It's clear this place remains part of her; it made her who she has become.

Back in Washington, D.C., I mention to her that many of my friends who are my age have never heard of Love Canal. "Keep telling the story," she says, "we need to remember it."

Erika Engelhaupt is an associate editor of ES&T.

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