Toxic Waste Management: Love Canal Disaster

Love Canal Protestor. Photograph taken from EPA historical website.

Whether it be pharmaceutical companies, oil refineries or on a municipal level, waste management must be regulated. A small town in Niagara Falls, named Love Canal, went through one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States. Before this residential town emerged, ran a canal. 

From the 1920’s, the canal was used as a municipal dumpsite by the City. In 1947, the Hooker Chemical Company bought the land to dispose of their chemical waste. The water was drained out and filled with more than 20,000 tons of chemicals over a period of six years. Water was replaced with dioxin, chlorobenzenes, halogenated organics and pesticides. A dumpsite filled with improperly sealed toxic barrels was simply covered over with dirt.

As the population of the City of Niagara grew, local authorities exerted pressure on the company to sell off the land to house new residents. Despite the company expressing safety concerns, the land was expropriated and sold for one dollar. 

As chemicals brewed below, a working class community gradually settled in. In less than ten years, chemicals started leaching into homes and onto school grounds. Puddles of chemicals were dotted around the town – some in playgrounds, others in basements or gardens. The families of Love Canal found themselves experiencing, first hand, the effects of chemical exposure. The children returned home with burns or rashes. Many of the 80 chemicals identified were found to be carcinogenic. By the late 70s, an increasing number of skin problems, birth defects and miscarriages were reported. After an emergency disaster was declared in 1979, residents started to be evacuated. 

The Love Canal disaster unveiled the threat of unregulated hazardous waste. It was this crisis that pushed Congress to pass the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), better known as the Superfund Act, in 1980. The act was set up to fund emergency responses, remediate waste sites, but also to help establish liability for responsible parties.

When landfills aren’t designed for hazardous waste, it is only a matter of time before they resurface. Chemicals can’t simply be buried and forgotten. Their structures change and react with their surroundings. As Lavoisier once said, nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed. 

Today, strict legislation requires specialist disposal. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) oversees all toxic waste management. Waste is considered hazardous if it is harmful to humans, the environment, or both. It’s much more than just chemicals. Hazardous waste takes the form of batteries, solvents – like paint, fridges, aerosols and so much more. Various disposal routes exist depending on the material. 

For a long time, incineration was the chosen technique. A number of countries still rely heavily on incineration. The health risks and potential air pollution from burning chemicals back into the atmosphere, led to the creation of strict regulations. In some cases, the steam created from the incinerators can be used to generate energy. 

More and more, chemical waste is being recycled into raw materials, sold off and used again. Chemists can manipulate the material in order to extract certain substances. If these aren’t viable options, then it must be neutralized and properly stored.

So how did the government deal with Love Canal? The birth of the Superfund enabled the site to be cleaned up and relocate families. Yet only fifteen years after families were urged to drop everything and evacuate, state officials wanted to reopen the area. Love Canal was stripped from the maps and renamed the Black Creek Village. The same homes that housed the sick, were resold below market price. Many argued the land was still unsafe, with chemicals still oozing out from under. To this day, there’s still an ongoing effort to monitor the land by the EPA and local departments.

History shouldn’t have to repeat itself. There are other ways to use poisoned land. Instead of ignoring the problem and rehousing families, the land could be filled with solar panels. Energy could be created from uninhabited areas to provide electrical power to those on the other side of the fence. Charlie Specht, a reporter from the incident, once pointed out the irony of one of the world’s natural wonders sat only five minutes away from one of the biggest environmental disasters.


Sources

  1. The New York Times, 1988, After 10 Years, the Trauma of Love Canal Continues, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/08/05/nyregion/after-10-years-the-trauma-of-love-canal-continues.html
  2. M.R. Fowlkes, P.Y. Miller, in The Social and Cultural Construction of Risk, ed. B.B. Johnson, V.T. Covello, Springer, Dordrecht, 3, 1987, ch. 3, pp 55-78.
  3. Environmental Protection Agency Archives, 1979, The Love Canal Tragedy, https://archive.epa.gov/epa/aboutepa/love-canal-tragedy.html
  4. A.K. Barbour, P.K. Hopke, N.A. Burdett, J. Cairns Jr, J. Petts, P.A. Chave, P. Crutzen, H. Fish, M.J. Gittins, J.E. Harries, Waste Incineration and the Environment, Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge, 1994.
  5. Committee on Review of Chemical Agent Secondary Waste Disposal and Regulatory Requirements, Board on Army Science and Technology, Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences, and National Research Council, Review of Chemical Agent Secondary Waste Disposal and Regulatory Requirements, National Academies Press, Washington D.C., 2007.
  6. Newsweek, 2013, Love Hurts, https://www.newsweek.com/2013/10/18/love-hurts-243690.html
  7. Official website of the European Union, 2019, New EU environmental standards for waste incineration, https://ec.europa.eu/jrc/en/news/new-eu-environmental-standards-waste-incineration

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