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Posts Tagged ‘Superfund’

In the 1890s, a man named William T. Love had a great idea. He was going to dig a canal in western New York State from the Niagara River, around Niagara Falls, and into Lake Ontario. He was going to use the water flow through this canal to generate electricity for the growing communities in the area. It was going to make him a ton of money! So, he bought land, hired workers, and started digging. Unfortunately, his timing was not so good. His plan had been to generate direct current, but direct current has significant transmission limitations, and at around the same time, Nikola Tesla and others were helping to introduce alternating current to the world. Additionally, the US Congress passed a law prohibiting the diversion of water out of the Niagara River to help preserve the famous falls. Not to be deterred, William Love changed his plan. He was going to use his canal as a commercial shipping route around Niagara Falls. He had a whole urban area planned out which he called “Model City.” He mapped out parks and community centers, where roads and neighborhoods would be around the canal, the whole thing. However, after only digging about a mile of canal, building a couple of streets and a few houses, William Love ran out of money and abandoned the project.

And so, there the canal sat. It filled with water and was basically left undisturbed until the 1920s. Around this time, the City of Niagara Falls began using the canal as a dump site for the city’s garbage. In 1942 the Hooker Electric Company was given permission to use the canal as a dump site for their chemical waste. The canal was drained, a thick layer of clay was placed on the sides and bottom of the canal, and Hooker Electric began filling it with 55-gallon drums. In 1947, Hooker Electric bought the canal and both banks. The US Army and the City of Niagara Falls also used the area as a dump site until 1948 after which Hooker Electric was the sole owner and user. By 1953, about 21,000 tons of chemicals, many of them very toxic, had pretty much filled the canal, so about 20 feet of dirt was used to cover the canal, and soon vegetation began growing over the area where the canal had been.

During all this time, the human population around of the area had been growing. The City of Niagara Falls wanted to build new neighborhoods and school for its growing population, and it look at the land that used to be the Love Canal as usable property. It attempted to buy the land from Hooker Electric, but the company refused to sell because of safety concerns due to the toxic nature of the waste under the site. The City was not deterred and eventually expropriated the property, forcing Hooker Electric to sell the property. It did so in 1953, for the price on $1, and included an extensive caveat explaining the dangers of building on the land the potential for toxic exposure. The City of Niagara Falls, or private developers working with the city, then built the 99th Street School and several neighborhoods on and around Love Canal.

By the late 1950s, the City of Niagara Falls had removed some of the clay lining of the canal to use as fill dirt and had broken holes in other parts of the clay lining to run sewer lines. Further, the clay lining, which had been supposed to be impermeable, began to form cracks on its own. All this, combined with rain water, resulted in extensive exposure to chemicals for the people living in the area. Sink holes opened on the school grounds exposing drums of chemicals. These holes then filled with water and became puddles that children played in, people began to report puddles of oil or strange colored liquids seeping into their basements, children often returned home with chemical burns or rashes on their hands and faces after playing outside. In the 1970s, people were suffering from cancer, birth defects, and a wide range of other health problems. Finally, in 1979, the still fairly new Environmental Protection Agency declared the area around Love Canal an emergency disaster area. The 99th Street School was demolished, the nearby 93rd Street School was also destroyed, and many people were evacuated. Eventually about 800 people would be paid for their homes and moved out of the area. This was the first time that US Federal disaster dollars were used for something other than a natural disaster. All the buildings that had been built on or near Love Canal were raised, and a combination of Hooker Electrical (by then a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum) and the City of Niagara Falls would pay millions of dollars to former residents, to divert water from the site, and to cover the most toxic areas with plastic liners, more clay, and more soil. The area is now surrounded by barbed wire to prevent people from entering the site.

The Love Canal disaster is important to learn about and remember partly because of its impact on environmental law in the US. It was partly due to the Love Canal disaster that, in 1980, the US passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) also known as the Superfund Act which established a fund of money to help clean up toxic sites and also laid groundwork for how to establish liability for the release of toxic chemicals into the environment.

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