If there were a poster-child for man-made disasters in U.S. history, Love Canal would be in strong contention for the honor. It epitomized scandal and negligence with a human cost. It continues to raise questions of responsibility and accountability, though through a retrospective lens it seems there are multiple shareholders of blame. As ecologist Garrett Hardin said, “We can never do merely one thing.” Since this little proverb can be applied uniformly (more or less) to every aspect of human action, it becomes increasingly important when we can’t know the full extent of our actions today.
The Model City
What started as an idealistic ‘greener’ development in the 1890’s ended up being its antithesis. William T. Love envisioned his “Model City” to be a beautiful, low-pollutant, hydroelectric and economic boon to the region. The canal he sought to build would connect the Niagara River to Lake Ontario. It may very well have been wonderful. After a few streets paved and a mile of canal dug, however, Love’s project went broke. So what do you do with a big hole in the ground and a growing nearby population? Clearly, you throw your trash in it. Of course had it just been trash we may have never even heard about Love Canal. Or perhaps it may have just become a snarky joke or an internet meme with a picture of a tombstone perched atop a landfill and an epitaph reading: Here lies William T. Love’s Model City.
It did not end with simple refuse. From the 1940’s until 1953, the Hooker Chemical Company (by then the sole owner/user of the property) dumped 21,000 tons of chemicals into the canal (including dioxins). There were precautions taken, of course. The chemicals were in 55 gallon drums and the site was encased with clay, with the presumption that the measure would make the site impermeable.
In 1954 Hooker Chemical sold the entire site to the Niagara Falls City School District for $1 dollar. There is some contention here, as Hooker Chemical was facing potential eminent domain and did not want any future liability. As such, they constructed a very specific legal disclaimer during the sale. Citing the need to expand the school district built on the purchased property, negotiating chemical finds during building excavations. Over the next 6-8 years land was sold, neighborhoods sprung forth, and infrastructure was installed.
Over the course of development, any real integrity of the clay encasement was lost. Combine that with 30 years of New York rainy seasons and winters; suffice it to say that the site was sufficiently saturated. Seepage of the chemicals extended far beyond the initial site. Nothing is impermeable forever, especially when there is an impetus to grow and build.
This is where we start to see chemical pools bubbling up in basements and backyards. Continue into the 1970’s on this abbreviated timeline, and a significant number of birth defects in newborns are recognized. Over time, an increased occurrence of miscarriages in residents would show. Residents in the 1980’s would eventually protest for evacuation assistance – which included holding two government personnel hostage. Over 900 families would eventually be evacuated.
The debacle prompted the Environmental Protection Agency to eventually create the Superfund program, with an aim to clean sites like these across America. “Cleaning” Love Canal cost approximately $400 Million, and “clean” does not mean that the chemicals are gone. It just means that they are mitigated (contained, reburied, recapped, and fenced off). As it turns out, moving 21,000 tons of hazardous materials is no small feat.
Everything we do has secondary and tertiary effects, even if we can’t anticipate precisely what they are. Is it ever enough to say “well, we’ve thought of everything [that we can predict]” and commission a project? Is there a threshold of checklists that, once reached, signifies a level of protection from accountable failure? It seems more wise to spend additional time looking 10, 15, 30, or 50 years into the future, and constantly reevaluating along the way. Love Canal certainly had its share contemptible decision-making, but the blame does not rest solely on one decision.
At least in part, Love Canal happened because a man dug a hole and no one begrudged what another man put in it.