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Love & a Hooker: The Birth of Public Awareness of Toxic Waste in the US – A Review of Love Canal

Llovecanalove Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present by Richard S. Newman
Published on May 2, 2016
Oxford University Press
Source: ARC from Oxford University Press via Netgalley
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“The first book to place Love Canal in a long history of industrialization around Niagara Falls, stretching back to colonial times; Places grassroots environmental protest in a national and global context; Situates Love Canal in a long and complex environmental history its residents altered forever in the 1970s and 1980s; Draws on previously unused archived material and original oral histories” Source: Oxford University Press

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Review

In the spring of 1953, the Niagara Falls School Board thinks itself mighty lucky for scoring the purchase of a site (Love Canal) for a new school for only $1. Ok, so it has been warned that underneath the seemingly idyllic pastoral landscape, a seething 20,000 tons of toxic waste percolates the earth. How this may be relevant, no one (wants) to guess, not even when the foundation of the new school sinks into an oily fetid pit. Undeterred, construction moves a few paces north, and the school opens in 1955.

Fast forward a couple of decades. Women in the Love Canal community have been experiencing a dramatic rate of miscarriages (as high as 1/3 by some estimates). Children have been dying mysteriously from curable conditions after playing in public playgrounds. People’s hair has been falling out. They’ve been developing cancer. Suicides are spiking. Many are anxious, angry, or depressed. Public consciousness that something is terribly wrong in Love Canal is growing, and residents are beginning to mobilize.

In 1978, the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) is formed and immediately proceeds to file suit against Hooker Chemical (the prior owner of the property), the city of Niagara Falls, and the Federal Government. Journalists swarm into Love Canal, and explode the story of Love Canal’s residents on the front pages of most national newspapers. The entire country is riveted. In the gripes of a contested election, President Jimmy Carter declares a national emergency on August 7, 1978. It is the first time such an emergency has been declared over anything other than a ‘natural’ disaster (floods, tornadoes, and the like).

People in other parts of the United States begin to ask questions about their neighborhoods. Congress calls committees, agencies, and a string of hearings into being (including The Superfund and Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) – providing cash & a structure for responding to environmental contamination by hazardous waste).

As residents of Love Canal mobilize, the rest follow. The public’s eyes are opened to toxic waste as a potential hazard; the budding environmental movement vigorously takes up the cause; researchers turn their efforts towards entirely new genres (toxic histories and deep histories of places); scientists begin conducting tests at thousands of national sites; Congress passes laws requiring sellers and landlords to disclose potential hazards.

Yet, as we move only slightly towards the cusp of the 21st century, memory begins to fade. After Reagan is elected in a sweeping victory, he proceeds to diminish environmental protections (now, up to 25% of landfill waste can consist of liquids, up from naught). The Chemical Manufacturers Association throws its weights around a little and purchases good-will. Some progress is made with cleaning up Love Canal, and after two Republican presidential terms, Democrats are back in the game.

In September 1988, now Health Commissioner David Axelrod announces that Love Canal will be resettled. Protest ensues, but this time it is not enough. By 1990s, ten families have moved into the new homes (acquired for 20% below market-price; not $1, for sure, but a steal in Niagara Fall’s suburbs). By the end of the decade, the neighborhood is once again a model city, this time with a new name: “Black Creek Village”.

At the time of this publication, Black Creek Village residents are reporting birth defects, gastrointestinal and reproductive disorders, cancer, heart, and several other conditions. Discontent and frustration are growing. Questions are percolating. 

What will we learn this time, and how long will we remember?

Love Canal is a sweeping “deep history” of the Niagara Falls suburb whose plight birthed public awareness of toxic waste as an environmental hazard. Newman’s work is meticulously documented, highly engaging (though also academic), and breathtaking in scope. The rough outline above does not even begin to cover all the nuances that Newman addresses:

– from the pre-history of Love Canal (back to its settlement and Native American protest and resistance)

– to a detailed biography of Love, who initially built the canal as a future conduit for a river sourced by Niagara, and whose ambitions to build a “model city” failed miserably

– to another biography, of chemical innovator and future giant Hooker, who deeply held to Dupont’s Depression-era mantra, “Better Living through Chemistry”, and who fashioned himself a progressive, even an environmentalist (but who dumped 20,000 tons of toxic waste without further consideration into Love’s Canal)

– to an exploration of the history of the chemical industry (and its alchemical mystique)

– to a discussion on the role and predominance of women in the movement

– to an analysis of race (the renters in Love Canal were mostly black while the owners were mostly white, and cleanup policies often favored the ‘owners’)

– to an honorable mention of religious conservationists’ efforts to modify prior trajectories of dominance over earth to stewardship of the earth in God’s name and for his glory

– to numerous asides about other interesting facets, such as philosophical foundations of humanity’s will to conquer nature

An absolutely staggering, eye-opening book that will appeal even to those who have never thought about this issue before – it’s the kind of work that will make one pay attention and care deeply, because it affects us all so profoundly. Living in the midst of chemicals and toxic waste is no less than a matter of life or premature death, disease, or debilitation.

I found this book especially profound because I don’t think much (at all? only fleetingly?) about this. Interestingly, Newman writes as if we all remember Love Canal. I personally was clueless to almost everything in this book before taking it up (my excuse is, I wasn’t around at the time. Perhaps if you were, you can (in)validate his suggestion). So, I’m profoundly grateful to Newman for bringing our attention back/to this vitally important topic (one that it would have never occurred to me to consider otherwise).

Bravo! A+
Highly Recommended!

 

3 comments

    1. I know, right?! I had no idea either before picking this up (it’s “Read Now” on Netgalley, on which I just started up a month or so ago; I’m reading a bunch of these to get my ‘ratio’ up). What I found most fascinating is that the author makes a case that before 1978 we didn’t really think of toxic sludge in the earth as a problem to consider, because it was this event that spurred all the protections we have in place today and brought our awareness to this issue (many those disclosures we now have in place when buying or renting a home hail from that period).

      Like

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