It may be hard to believe, but the anniversary of one of the seminal events in environmental history turned 40 this summer. For the past four decades, Love Canal has been known as one of the most significant environmental disasters in U.S. history. The Love Canal neighborhood, located in Niagara Falls, New York, was home to an unregulated 70-acre landfill, filled with approximately 21,000 tons of chemicals and hazardous wastes, after the Hooker Chemical Company disposed large quantities of its wastes in an abandoned canal there from 1942 to 1953. Yet, as much as it was an environmental disaster, Love Canal also was the impetus behind one of the most important environmental laws ever created: the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (“CERCLA”), which we now call Superfund.
Niagara Falls was a booming city in the 1950s. Land was needed for development, including schools—and this land included the Love Canal landfill.
By the 1960s, Love Canal residents noticed the strange odors and wastes that began to bubble up into backyards and cellars. There were reports of significant health issues, including miscarriages and birth defects. By 1978, the problem became too great to ignore and President Jimmy Carter issued the first of two emergency declarations to address what had become evident was a major environmental problem. President Carter tapped into federal funds, and ordered the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency, the predecessor to FEMA, to help Niagara Falls cleanup the Love Canal site. It was the first time in American history that emergency disaster funds were used for a situation other than a natural disaster. In all, 950 families were evacuated from a 10 square-block area surrounding Love Canal. More than 80 industrial chemicals, including heavy metals, pesticides, and dioxins, were present at the site.
In response to Love Canal, Congress enacted CERCLA in 1980 and gave birth to the Superfund program. Superfund continues to this day as one of the best legal environmental tools to clean up contaminated sites and address threats to public health and the environment. Many contaminated sites across America have been cleaned up as a result of the Superfund program.
As for Love Canal itself, its transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. After many years of remedial cleanup, in 2004, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (“EPA”) deleted the Love Canal site from its National Priorities List of Superfund sites. Groundwater as a pathway for contaminants remains a possible issue, so the agency and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation (“NYSDEC”) installed over 100 wells to gather and monitor groundwater data. So far, the data shows that the remedy in place—a leachate collection system, barrier drain, landfill cap—is working properly. Today, Love Canal is considered clean enough that some parts of the neighborhood have new homeowners. By EPA’s estimate, over 260 homes have been deemed safe, rehabilitated and sold to new and even returning residents to the Love Canal neighborhood.