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Visually, it would perhaps be more accurate to describe Niagara Falls not as a small city so much as an endlessly sprawling suburb of 75,000 people without a core city. There are only two commercial streets, Main and Pine, both of which intrude upon otherwise uninterrupted expanses of suburban-style houses, which extend row upon row on each side of the two chief thoroughfares. In any event, whether it’s seen as a town or merely as a suburb without a city, Niagara Falls struck me as a singularly odd kind of place to serve as a bellwether for the souring of America’s dream of an insect-free plasticized world– "better living through chemistry," to quote the commercial from DuPont. There’s an irony to this place: on the one side of town is the eternal majesty of nature grandly displayed in the water tumbling over the Niagara escarpment; across the city stands a stark symbol of the incompetence and perhaps greed of man–the acrid fumes and boarded up houses along the periphery of the now-infamous chemical ditch.
But as it turns out, that festering blister of the industrial age known as Love Canal isn’t quite as incongruous a fixture in Niagara Falls as it might seem at first blush. You don’t have to be around this place long but you’ll hear about how the local economy was built even more upon the chemical industry than upon tourism. Back in the 1950s, the locals will tell you, the putrid air from the industrial stacks made the eyes and lungs continually smart. The smog was so bad that the city was recognizable from an approaching plane by the dark grayish-brown cloud of pollution that blanketed the earth below.
Of course, this was in an era when conservation meant leaving the wild bears alone, nutrition meant "fruit, cereal, milk, bread, and butter," and pollution was a term that only communists, oddballs, or crazy people ever used. Niagara Falls considered itself fortunate back then to be one of the capitals of the world’s chemical industry. The townspeople felt proud to be in the vanguard of the coming technological society. When the Atomic Energy Commission handed out awards to Niagara Falls chemical plants for work on radioactive substances, it made page-one headlines in the local newspapers. Chemical row along Buffalo Avenue, which skirts the southernmost edge of town bordering the Niagara River, was not only the Falls area’s chief source of employment but also a source of considerable civic pride.
Now, however, the long-anticipated chemical future has at last come to the world, and a lot of people in Niagara Falls are finding that they don’t like it. The theory used to be that industrial wastes need only be shoved under the rug and they would be gone. Out of sight was out of mind. But as events at Love Canal and elsewhere were ultimately to make clear, today’s far-away rural chemical dump is tomorrow’s suburb, where you may someday live and where your children may end up going to school.
Of course, many people don’t care about tomorrow and never did. According to the popular wisdom, this kind of dangerous shortsightedness is an attribute of private businesses more than of governmental bodies, and this perception has colored the way the Love Canal story has been reported. But my own investigation shows that this popular interpretation of the Love Canal tragedy is 180 degrees off.
Back at the turn of the century, an ambitious entrepreneur by the name of William Love envisioned building a huge hydroelectric project in the Niagara Falls area. Thomas Edison had just harnessed the force of electricity; but because the state-of-the-art allowed only for transmission by direct current, which was uneconomic over long distances, industries had to be located near the source of electrical generation. Love planned his hydroelectric canal project as a means of supplying this electrical power to nearby industry and even dreamed that his "Love’s Canal" would become the basis for a booming model city. But the economic recession of 1894 and Nikola Tesla’s pioneering system of alternating current, which facilitated transmission of electricity over long distances, combined to bankrupt Love’s canal after only short segments of it had been dug. The 3,200-foot-long section that Hooker started filling with waste chemicals in 1942 has now come to be known internationally as the Love Canal.
Hooker says that it chose the site because the soil characteristic of the area–impermeable clay–and the sparse population surrounding the Canal at the time made the pit outstandingly suitable for disposing of dangerous chemical wastes. The customary practices then were to pile up such wastes in unlined surface impoundments, insecure lagoons, or pits, usually on the premises of the chemical factory, or else to burn the wastes or dump them into rivers or lakes. Except for disposal into water supplies, these practices were all legal until 1980, when the Environmental Protection Agency began issuing regulations implementing the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. The EPA estimates that 90 percent of chemical wastes are currently being disposed of in ways that do not meet its proposed standards (controlled incineration, treatment to render the waste nonhazardous, secure landfills, or recovery). An attorney I spoke with from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation told me that "at least 50 percent of chemical waste dumping [in that state] is contracted out to organized crime. " If true, however, such was not to be the case with Love Canal.
Hooker in 1941 began studies of the suitability of using the Canal as a chemical dump. The findings were affirmative, and by April of the next year the company completed the legal transactions to commence dumping what ultimately amounted to approximately 21,800 tons of the company’s waste before the Canal property (which included a strip of land on either side of the Canal) was donated by Hooker to the Niagara Falls Board of Education in 1953, under pressure from the Board that if Hooker didn’t willingly deed the land the property would be seized under eminent domain for the building of a school.
It’s also worth noting here that other wastes besides these 21,800 tons from Hooker have apparently been dumped into the Canal. According to New York State officials, federal agencies, especially the Army, disposed of toxic chemical wastes there during and after World War II. The city of Niagara Falls also regularly unloaded its municipal refuse into this Hooker-owned pit.
There were two reasons why the School Board wanted to acquire Hooker’s Love Canal property. One was that the postwar baby boom had produced a need for construction of more schools, and virtually every available open lot of suitable size was being eyed voraciously by the Board of Ed’s Buildings and Grounds Committee for possible construction of new schools. The other was that since the area was not built up (one of Hooker’s reported criteria for the site’s suitability), land prices around this dumpsite were low, and the Board was strapped for cash. On October 16, 1952, the very same day that Hooker sent a letter to the Board of Education agreeing to donate the Canal property for the token price of $1.00, the Board itself recorded, in its minutes for that evening’s meeting, that "a communication was received from the Niagara Falls Teachers Association stating that teachers are becoming more and more uneasy because of their uncertain financial prospects. "
Looking over the School Board minutes from the early ‘50s, one notes two concerns that dominated and practically obliterated all others: construction of new buildings, and overcoming the monetary shortage. There is no indication that any long-term consequences were being thought of; the attitude seems to have been that the future could take care of itself. For example, the 99th Street School, which was built beside Love Canal, was being planned by the School Board simultaneously with the planning for another, the 66th Street School; and the Niagara Gazette reported on September 13, 1978, that high radiation had been found at that other location. It turns out that this school also may have been built upon a former dumpsite. The Board of Ed’s deed to the site (donated by the federal government) refers to the presence of radioactive substances.
The negotiations that culminated in Hooker’s transfer of the Love Canal property to the Board of Education took place over a period of several I years. The contemporary documentary record is very sparse, consisting of three perfunctory letters and the deed itself. Virtually all of the negotiations were verbal rather than written.
One thing, however, is clear: according to the School Board’s own records, the Board was already well along in its planning of the 99th Street School more than two years before Hooker deeded the Canal to the Board. And the Board meant business. It was gearing up for a string of condemnation proceedings for the Canal site and all properties abutting it. First, there’s a map, dated March 1951 and labeled "School Site Study Plan A" (Plan B was for the 66th Street School). This map not only shows the projected school being built right over the very center of the Canal itself but also shows the assessed condemnation values for the Canal property and each of the properties bordering it. Then there are two letters from the School Board’s attorney, Ralph Boniello–one dated September 4, 1952, informing the Board’s business manager, Frank Lang, that procedures were under way to purchase four lots abutting the Canal; the other dated September 19, 1952, addressed to Mr. Carmen J. Caggiano and sent registered mail, return receipt requested, informing Mr. Caggiano that since he had refused the Board’s "price offered of $10 per front foot" for the strip of 10 lots he owned along the east side of the Canal, "The purpose of this letter is to apprise you of the institution of an action in condemnation to acquire the above--escribed property for educational purposes."
According to reporter Michael Brown, in his book and other writings, the School Board’s attorney at the time denies that the threat of property condemnation was ever held out against Hooker for the Love Canal site. Brown neither questions nor documents this. Yet when Hooker, in 1957, addressed to the president of the Board of Education a letter that was read out loud and passed around at the Board’s meeting on November 21 of that year, and when that letter recalled that in 1952 Board officials had threatened "that condemnation proceedings might be resorted to," there wasn’t a peep of protest from South any Board member or official present–not from Wesley Kester, head of the Board’s Buildings and Grounds Committee in 1957, who had served in the same capacity in 1952 and so must have been very prominently involved in the negotiations with Hooker at the time; not from Arthur Silberberg, another member of the same committee who had also served in the same capacity throughout that period with the Board; not from Frank Lang, a Board member who had served as manager of business affairs throughout the period and was always involved in such matters as property condemnations; not from William Small, who was superintendent of schools throughout the period and who had personally accompanied Hooker’s executive vice-president, Bjarne Klaussen, to Love Canal in March 1952 when the test-holes were bored into the clay cover over the Canal and into the surrounding area to check for chemical leakage; not from the Board’s attorney, William Salacuse, who had been its president back in 1952 and who had also been present at that test at the Canal site; not from anyone at all, though the printed minutes of that evening’s Board meeting make conspicuous mention of this letter from Hooker.
One might wonder why Hooker deeded the property to the School Board for $1.00 rather than let it be condemned and seized under eminent domain. After all, condemnation would clearly have freed the company from future liability for the chemical dump, saving Hooker the trouble of spelling out such matters in the deed.