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Michael D. Regan
Michael D. Regan
Forty years ago this week, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a national health emergency when the small community near Niagara Falls, New York, learned that their homes and school were built on 22,000 tons of chemicals. Today, many residents in the area, which was deemed safe by authorities, claim to be facing health problems. Megan Thompson reports.
Oh, this was a great neighborhood. You know, houses all along here.
you wouldn't know it now, but these abandoned fields were once home to a thriving working class neighborhood on the western edge of Niagara Falls, New York. Luella Kenny and her family moved in nearby in 1969.
And we thought, oh, what a nice ideal place to raise these boys. It turned out to be quite a disaster.
A company called Hooker Chemical had dumped 22,000 tons of toxic waste in an unfinished canal nearby. Love Canal chemicals started seeping into residents' basements and backyards, bubbling up on the school's playground.
My child, I sent to school every single day, was sitting on top of a toxic dump. The chemicals were oozing to the surface and my son was sick.
Lois Gibbs, a Virginia-based environmental activist, was a mother of two who lived a block from Love Canal. She led the fight for justice there.
Gibbs' activism let to President Jimmy Carter issuing an emergency declaration in 1978. Hundreds of families were evacuated.
I mean, we were a small, blue-collar community you know, we weren't scientists. Yet we were able to do it, because we stood together.
Love Canal became known as one of the nation's worst environmental disasters. It led to the creation of the federal Superfund program that oversees the remediation of dangerous hazardous waste sites. This is Love Canal today. A bare 70-acre lot, surrounded by a chain-link fence. A lone marker a block away is the only testament to what happened here. In 1988, after the federal Environmental Protection Agency and New York state conducted thousands of soil, air and water tests…the state determined the areas directly east of Love Canal were not safe to live. But the areas directly north and west were.
We're gonna go directly into the emergency declaration area now.
Mike Basile is a spokesperson for the EPA, which helped oversee the rehabilitation of more than 200 abandoned homes just north of Love Canal.
Each one of the homes has new siding, new roofs, new windows, new furnaces.
Today the neighborhood has been renamed Black Creek village. 39 wells monitor the groundwater nearby.
I mean, it's literally just a street that separates the habitable from the non-habitable.
How do we know that it's actually safe to live here?
Well, our monitoring wells and our sampling that was taken back in the 1980's and 90's truly reflects the answer to that question.
But many current and former residents aren't convinced the area's safe…like Luella Kenny, whose 7 year old Jon son died in 1978 from a rare kidney disease that she believes was caused by exposure to Love Canal chemicals.
When I see children in this neighborhood playing I become very upset because there are still 20,000 tons of chemicals buried un– under there.
The landfill material remains in place….
The EPA kept the nearly 22,000 tons of toxic waste right where they were, in a specialized landfill because digging up and transporting the hazardous waste would pose its own dangers.
The landfill is topped with three feet of clay, a massive sheet of thick plastic and 18 inches of topsoil to seal off the chemicals…and keep out rain and snowmelt, which could displace the toxins. Groundwater is guided down towards a system of underground trenches that surround the landfill and collect the water so that it doesn't migrate. More than 100 monitoring wells surround the site to make sure no chemicals escape.
The system is monitored 24/7, 365 days a year.
Clint Babcock is operations director for Glenn Springs Holdings. It's a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, which bought Hooker Chemical, the company that originally dumped the waste. Under superfund rules, Glenn Springs is now responsible for maintaining the landfill, with government oversight.
This is the Love Canal treatment facility.
This special carbon filtration system cleans up to 5 million gallons of groundwater that leach from the site every year.
The EPA studies the site every five years, and New York state receives annual reports from Glenn Springs Holdings. The most recent said the system is successfully "preventing off-site migration of contamination."
All those reports prove the effectiveness of the existing remedy.
But some neighbors aren't so sure. in 1994 Dolly Salerno and her family moved to one of those homes the government deemed safe a block north of the Love Canal site. She says a few years ago, she began smelling a strong chemical odor coming from the kitchen sink. She did not want to show her face on camera.
I get dizzy. Sometimes I feel short of breath.
Salerno says she's developed migraines and pulmonary fibrosis, a lung disease. Air tests by the county health department didn't turn up anything. But soil and dust testing conducted by a private company found traces of chemicals found at Love Canal, like chlorinated pesticides, dioxins and PCBs.
And where do you think these chemicals came from?
I tend to believe, since we are in such a close proximity to the Love Canal that somehow they are getting into the soil, /I don't know. I wish I had a answer.
This spring, Salerno and other families filed a lawsuit against the city of Niagara Falls, Occidental Petroleum, and other entities involved in the Love Canal cleanup. The suit claims Love Canal chemicals have "migrated to residents' properties" and made them sick. Hundreds of plaintiffs in other lawsuits have made similar claims.
Salerno's lawsuit points to an incident in 2011, when a pocket of Love Canal waste was discovered under a sewer line outside the site.
They remediated it, removed it.
The EPA's Mike Basile says that waste was cleaned up immediately, and he won't comment on the litigation. He says the agency hasn't conducted soil or air tests in the Black Creek neighborhood since it first declared the area safe, thirty years ago.
There's no need to test, and I'll tell you why. Because we have over 150 monitoring wells around the canal–
But if we know the chemicals spread, shouldn't there be continuing soil sampling, air sampling of the wider area?
Once again, based on our– the information that we have from these monitoring– wells, the public is protected in the immediate area.
Glenn Springs Holdings, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, said in a statement that the monitoring well data demonstrate the system is working and, "we believe the plaintiffs' allegations are meritless" …"the health and safety of the surrounding community and neighborhood is our number one priority."
Ana Navas-Acien is a physician and epidemiologist at Columbia University who studies public health near Superfund sites. She says, it's good news that the wells show no signs of contamination.
ANA NAVAS ACIEN:
That's good. At the same time, because this site, it's so complex– there was such an enormous quantity of toxicants that were disposed there. And they– it can be challenging to make sure that there is no release in– from any– any place.
She points out, the technologies the EPA used to clean and test site back in the 1980's are old, compared to improved remediation and testing technologies that exist today.
I think relying on past technology– to– try to understand what's happening today? I– I would say, that's not reasonable, and– and new measures with today's technology would be important.
The health complaints aren't confined to people who have lived close to Love Canal. This is the town of Wheatfield, about six miles away. Until recently an old landfill in a wooded area that backs up to dozen of homes contained about 2400 tons of waste moved from love canal in the 1960's. The waste was buried under topsoil and surrounded by natural clay for nearly 50 years. Other companies dumped industrial waste back there, too.
The kids would ride their bikes back there, build forts – do all kinds of things that kids do.
Lori Richards had no idea what was across the street when she moved in nearly 29 years ago.
In 2015, Glenn Springs Holdings completed removal of the Love Canal waste from the Wheatfield dump. New York state conducted water and soil testing and is completing its investigation of the site. Preliminary results showed "landfill contaminants do not present an off-site exposure concern to neighboring properties." But Lori Richards isn't buying it.
Frankly, it's scary as hell.
When Richards and her husband moved here in 1990, they had one child, and a few years later started trying for a second.
I had a total of 11—miscarriages.
Uh-huh. There's no family history of it. It definitely threw us for a loop.
Richards eventually gave birth to a second, healthy son. But the problems continued … she says she had a brain aneurysm, her thyroid has essentially stopped functioning, and her husband struggles with daily headaches and muscle twitching.
Why don't you leave?
Who are we gonna sell to? You know, are we gonna sell to another young family starting out? It doesn't seem right. So we are hoping that whatever has happened to us is done. And here we are.
Down the street, Richards' neighbor sue has multiple myeloma. She has simply walked away from her home and now lives in an apartment nearby.
It's been difficult, you're leaving everything behind that, you know, you've had for many years.
Sue, Lori Richards and dozens other residents have a separate lawsuit, claiming toxins from the Wheatfield landfill have made them sick.
Their attorneys hired a private firm to conduct soil and dust tests in the area. They say they found toxins "previously found in Love Canal-related sites." Indoors, toxins can get trapped and build up. Tests there found toxin levels 10 to 100 times higher. So far, state officials have declined to test inside residents' homes.
In a statement about its involvement, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said it "took aggressive actions to ensure contamination has not migrated outside the Niagara landfill site."
And in response to the lawsuit, Mike Anderson, the President of Glenn Springs Holdings, pointed to the company's work removing the waste from the landfill and said, "We believe the allegations are meritless."
What do you think? ANA NAVAS ACIEN: I mean, these levels are quite elevated.
Columbia University's Navas- Acien says, the chemicals found in the homes are cause for alarm. But it's impossible to know without more testing where they came from…or if they caused the plaintiffs' health problems.
We don't know exactly how- these agents, chemicals have really traveled. It would be very hard for me to say, "Yes, this is the direct cause of all your problems." At the same time– can this chemical have those effects that they are– complaining about, that they– they are facing, these very important problems? Yes. The answer is yes.
Navas- Acien says even though residents may never find answers, the Love Canal disaster will always offer a cautionary tale.
Love Canal was such an incredible lesson for the country. We need to be extremely careful in the way we handle toxicants. Because the consequences of poor management and the contamination that we can induce it's very serious. And the health effects are very serious. Prevention is key.
And for people like Lori Richards Love Canal isn't history, but something she feels she's still living, every day.
I think most of all, I just want more than anything, for someone to come in and make it all go away, It's 40 years after Love Canal and we're still dealing with it.
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Megan Thompson shoots, produces and reports on-camera for PBS NewsHour Weekend. Her report "Costly Generics" earned an Emmy nomination and won Gracie and National Headliner Awards. She was also recently awarded a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship to report on the issue of mental health. Previously, Thompson worked for the PBS shows and series Need to Know, Treasures of New York, WorldFocus and NOW on PBS. Prior to her career in journalism she worked in research and communications on Capitol Hill. She originally hails from the great state of Minnesota and holds a BA from Wellesley College and a MA in Journalism from New York University.
Mori Rothman has produced stories on a variety of subjects ranging from women’s rights in Saudi Arabia to rural depopulation in Kansas. Mori previously worked as a producer and writer at ABC News and as a production assistant on the CNN show Erin Burnett Outfront.
Michael D. Regan is a senior digital editor for PBS NewsHour.
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