For many environmental activists and scientists, the phrase “Love Canal” remains indelibly marked in the imagination. A toxic waste site that pitted scientists and citizens against the government, it is heralded as one of the first successes of the environmental movement in holding the state accountable for the public health of its residents.
In 1896, entrepreneur William T. Love began building a navigable canal along the Niagara River in upstate New York.1 After digging 3,000 feet long and almost 100 feet wide, Love abandoned the project when economic depression hit, leaving behind what is now known as Love Canal. In 1942, Hooker Electrochemicals Company bought the land and over the next decade, they dumped over 20,000 metric tons of hazardous waste there. After the dumping was complete, Hooker filled the rest of the canal with dirt.
In 1953, Hooker sold the land for a token amount of $1 to the Niagara Falls Board of Education, who built a school and playground in the middle of the canal.2 A working-class housing division was built. By the late-1970s, there were nearly 800 single-family homes and 240 low-income apartments around the canal.3
Residents complained of illnesses related to the chemical waste over the years. By the late-1970s, however, residents’ growing concerns forced the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) to conduct soil tests. The Department detected the migration of chemicals into the basements of surrounding homes via storm sewers. Officials from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) found “rusting barrels of [chemical] waste” and “potholes [that] were oozing waste into several backyards.” The state declared a health emergency, evacuated the 235 families living closest to the canal, fenced off the area, and closed the school. The NYSDOH reassured families living slightly further away that they faced no negative health effects.
Yet the remaining residents were unsatisfied. They believed their children’s numerous health problems were related to the toxins. Under the leadership of one resident, Lois Gibbs, a group of housewives associated with the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) collected their own informal survey of the rate, type, and location of illnesses among the remaining families. They mapped their findings and brought them to Dr. Beverly Paigen, a scientist working at Roswell Park Memorial Institute, a cancer research center connected to the NYSDOH in nearby Buffalo. (She also happens to be my grandmother.) When overlaid with a topographical map of the area, the illnesses coincided with the underground stream beds. Paigen hypothesized that chemicals were traveling along the stream beds, moving far beyond the initial evacuation area.
Paigen realized, however, that a true scientific study needed to be pursued, one which adhered to methodologically-sound sampling techniques, peer review and criticism, and the replication of experiments. After receiving funding from the Environmental Defense Fund, Dr. Paigen undertook a scientific study. She found that residents faced adverse health outcomes when controlling for other factors such as nutrition, race, and stress. Moreover, the data, after compared with control studies, demonstrated increased rates of miscarriages, birth defects, low birth weight babies, stunted growth in children, and higher rates of seizures, among other problems.4
Paigen found that “[chemical] exposure to children occurred by breathing in volatile chemicals in home air, by playing on the school playground, by playing in soil that had been contaminated with storm sewer overflow, and by playing in neighborhood creeks.”5 In other words, being a kid put you at risk. Paigen brought her findings to NYSDOH, thinking they would evacuate the remaining families.
But Paigen was met with resistance. Relocating the rest of the families would be costly for the state. More importantly, however, it would set a precedent for the numerous New York residents who lived around the state’s other 600 hazardous waste sites. They would have the right to live in toxin-free environments, a right that the state would have to uphold.
To avoid paying for relocation, health officials worked to destroy Paigen’s science. When speaking with Paigen today, it is clear that the attacks on her scientific skills were difficult to comprehend. She was committed to robust science based on unbiased sampling and statistical analysis.6 Yet the state rejected all her findings, discrediting her as a serious scientific researcher. As Paigen argued with the scientists from the Health Department, she realized she was not dealing with a scientific quandary. “The issue is ethical,” wrote Paigen, “for it is a value judgment to decide whether to make errors on the side of protecting human health or on the side of conserving state resources.”7
Despite the state’s best efforts, Paigen, Gibbs, and other citizens did not back down. They enlisted the local press and the combined power of data and protest to put pressure on the state. The state fought back. It hired people to follow Gibbs and Paigen. At work, Paigen faced escalating hostility. The Health Department (of which Roswell Park was a branch) was pressuring those in power to make sure Paigen lost her job. She was taken off grants, denied the ability to apply for new ones, and threatened with internal censorship. She found her mail opened and her office gone through. Paigen told me that she thought it was such a waste of time. “I had the most boring mail … the most boring files!” Of course, she kept all the documentation related to Love Canal in the office of a fellow academic at the local university.
Paigen’s husband also worked at Roswell Park, and the Director told him to “take control” of his wife. In the courtroom, lawyers for the chemical company and the state portrayed Paigen as sexually promiscuous and played on gendered stereotypes to suggest she was scientifically incompetent. As Paigen recalls, “They thought they would be able to show that I was a stupid scientist, that I wasn’t really recognized by my peers, and that I didn’t publish … and they also [said] that I was promiscuous.” When she testified in court, however, Paigen remembers that the opposition’s lawyers quickly grew afraid of her. “I knew my stuff so well. My testimony was so devastating [to the state].”8
Finally, in 1980, the Federal government offered relocation to all Love Canal residents. Federal intervention also led to the creation of the EPA’s Superfund program, which cleans up the nation’s worst hazardous waste sites. In Jimmy Carter’s 1981 State of the Union address he mentioned Love Canal in his support for environmental protections: “The regulations establish comprehensive controls for hazardous waste and, together with vigorous enforcement, will help to ensure that Love Canal will not be repeated.”
The triumph of Love Canal was not without its own problems. The activist residents both reflected and reinforced the racial disparities in the community, which was divided into two sections, de facto segregated into the white, working-class homeowners led by Lois Gibbs, and the mainly black renters of the low-income apartment housing. When Gibbs started her community health study, she didn’t include the families in the low-income housing units. Yet both communities faced similar adverse health outcomes. The chemicals didn’t adhere to the social rules of segregation. They flowed freely into the homes of brown and white children alike.
Recent research has demonstrated that the black women in the rental housing fought just as hard, connecting Love Canal to structural issues of racism and classism. As historian Elizabeth D. Blum writes, “Marginalized by their race, class, and gender, these black women fought to be heard as they defined their environmental activism as an ongoing part of the civil rights struggle against the racism and classism inherent in American society.”9
In our trying political times, Love Canal can provide valuable lessons. The Trump administration says that climate change is a hoax, sent out questionnaires to government scientists asking if they have been involved in climate science, and forced the National Park Services to stop tweeting about global warming. So how do we respond to these attacks?
Dr. Paigen’s scientific studies of Love Canal demonstrate the absolute necessity of collecting reliable data and engaging in unbiased scientific inquiry. Yet facts are simply not enough. As Dr. Paigen wrote, “I was to learn that actual facts made little difference in resolving our disagreements — the Love Canal controversy was predominantly political in nature, and it raised a series of questions that had more to do with values than science.”10 Facts must be accompanied by the individual moral conviction to do the right thing in the face of harassment.
Of course, Trump doesn’t only have an allergy to the facts (he prefers “alternative truths”). Rather, he seems intent on actively promoting possible environmental disasters. He wants both Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines up and running. The activism of the Love Canal community — and the mobilization of the press — is echoed in the Standing Rock protesters. Yet, the homeowners’ initial racial segregation also reminds us of the need for strong, intersectional activism that centers the lives and voices of all of those affected by possible environmental degradation.
The ongoing water crisis in Flint demonstrates that black and brown communities continue to be devalued in a corporate governmental approach towards the environment. But Love Canal reveals the power of prolonged community activism. The outcome of Love Canal was the result of a protracted and much-contested process. And even so, residents of the Niagara Falls area continue to face health issues in relation to Love Canal chemicals. We must continue to hold the government accountable for its (in)action and worship of the bottom line. The cameras may have long gone away in Niagara Falls and more recently disappeared in Flint, but there’s still lead in the water and chemicals in the soil.
Adherence to the truth in the face of backlash is a form of protest that scientists, academics, teachers, policymakers, and citizens must hold strong to in the coming years. The women of Love Canal showed that it’s possible to triumph. As Dr. Paigen remembers, “Controversy is stifled, not resolved, by silencing the opposition.”11 We will not be silent.
Adeline Levine. Love Canal: Science, Politics, and People. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath, 1982.
Richard Newman. Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.
Katie Smyser and Richard Newman. “Tainted Love: Love Canal and the Fight for Environmental Rights.” History Buffs Podcast, February 14, 2016.
- Love wanted to bypass Niagara Falls and connect Lakes Erie and Ontario. Along with increased mobility, Love hoped the diverted water would be a massive hydroelectric power generator for the region. Return to text.
- Hooker later argued that it had been approached by the School Board, who had threatened it with eminent domain if it did not sell the land; however, board meeting records do not substantiate this claim. Hooker later said it told the Board that it was unsafe to build a school on top of the canal and made the Board sign a contract, releasing the company from any future liability related to the site. Beverly Paigen, “Controversy at Love Canal,” The Hastings Center Report, 12, no. 3 (1982): 29-37. Return to text.
- Love Canal Chronology (Falls Church, VA: Center for Health, Environment & Justice, 2009). Return to text.
- Beverly Paigen, et. al. “Prevalence of Health Problems in Children Living Near Love Canal,” Hazardous Waste and Hazardous Materials 2, no. 1 (1985): 23; Beverly Paigen, et. al. “Low Birth Weight, Prematurity and Birth Defects in Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal,” Hazardous Waste & Hazardous Materials 2, no. 2 (1985): 209; Paigen, et. al., “Growth of Children,” 504. Return to text.
- Beverly Paigen, et. al., “Growth of Children Living Near the Hazardous Waste Site, Love Canal,” Human Biology 59, no. 3 (1987): 491. Return to text.
- Beverly Paigen, transcript of telephone interview by author, 4 February 2017, Bar Harbor, ME. Return to text.
- “Controversy at Love Canal,” 32. Return to text.
- Paigen interview. Return to text.
- Love Canal Revisited: Race, Class, and Gender in Environmental Activism (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008). Return to text.
- Paigen, “Controversy at Love Canal.” Return to text.
- “Controversy at Love Canal,” 33. Return to text.