In the 1970s, residents of a Niagara Falls neighborhood realized that chemicals from a toxic waste dump had leached into their homes, parks, and neighborhood school. Their cancers, miscarriages, and myriad chronic ailments told the tale, and in 1978 they organized, filed lawsuits, and demanded intervention. The federal government eventually complied, evacuating the residents and creating in 1980 the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERLA), also known as the Superfund Act, which provides a permanent framework for cleaning up such sites.
Similar events have played out in towns across America, from Hinkley, California, to Flint, Michigan. It seems like a performance piece finely tuned to the conditions of our era. Yet in his new book, Richard S. Newman urges us to see the Love Canal disaster stretched out in time, rooted in the long history of the Niagara Falls area. The crisis itself, he says, was an outcome of patterns established generations earlier that pitted developmental pressures against environmental and human health, and created a “cycle of disposable land use that had long dominated area politics and economics” (9). The Love Canal residents of the 1970s, he says, were just the first to successfully challenge it.
After surveying the Niagara region in the late nineteenth century, William Love imagined a hydroelectric canal to power a great manufacturing city, but left it only partly dug, when funding for the project evaporated. “Love saw the landscape itself as a great canvas upon which to draw monumental scenes,” Newman writes. “When the picture faded, Love simply moved on, leaving to subsequent generations the task of reckoning with environmental impacts he set in motion” (37).
Soon after Love departed, Elon Hooker, an engineer turned entrepreneur, arrived. Hooker Electrochemical Company’s midcentury “Chemagination” campaign positioned the industry as a great emancipator of humanity, facing the perils of industrialization by cleaning the air and water with chemistry. Between 1939 and 1950 its profits rose 850 percent as it supplied disinfectants, DDT, materials for wartime explosives, and many other goods to the military and postwar consumers. Hooker began putting toxic sludge into William Love’s abandoned waterway in 1942.
Faced with a burgeoning population, development-minded local officials set their sights on the parcel of land that contained Love’s canal in the 1950s. When the Niagara Falls School Board bought the site from Hooker for one dollar in 1953, the company unmistakably warned them about the dangers associated with the site. Yet the Board appeared hell-bent on building a new school. The foundation of the 99th Street School sank into the chemical pit during constructionWhen the Board sold some of the land to a developer to build homes, Hooker once again warned that digging for foundations was a bad idea. The houses were built anyway.
Throughout Newman’s narrative is a palpable sense that citizens must remain active and vigilant in the face of government complacency. In the 1970s, the Love Canal Homeowners Association, along with the Concerned Love Canal Renters Association, transformed residents into activists clamoring for health protection, evacuation, and compensation. But even after President Jimmy Carter declared an emergency in 1978, and Congress passed the Superfund Act in 1980, residents distrusted the authorities’ commitment to remediation and constantly challenged statements made by state and federal officials.
Ironically, the successful evacuation of residents, achieved under the auspices of the Superfund Act, removed the very source of activism that made the protests successful. When the activists left, the idea of environmental remediation attracted businesses that promised to deliver a healthy environment. The city of Niagara Falls, taking a leaf out of Hooker’s playbook, paid these organizations to recast Love Canal as a place cleansed by the marvels of science and technology. In 1990, ten refurbished houses were reopened for sale and the neighborhood was repackaged as Black Creek Village. Attracted by the neighborhood’s affordability and location, prospective homeowners expressed confidence in the Superfund site’s remediation. Many activists and former residents remain skeptical.
Love Canal challenges readers to think about long-term structural problems that are place-specific and deeply historical. That is a laudable aim, though the search for commonalities in the “very long history of environmental protest along the Niagara Frontier” leads Newman to use “environmental” capaciously, including, for example, to describe the colonial disputes between Native Americans and white settlers (9). Nevertheless, he succeeds in revealing the public health fiasco as a powerful example of persistent citizen activism in the face of government complacency.
The term “Love Canal” has become a metaphor for a particular kind of public health crisis that could happen in Anytown, USA. Newman asks us to remember too that Love Canal was also a specific place in a specific time, and that the human costs of development have long been recognized and resisted.
Richard S. Newman. Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2016. 306 pp.
Review by Jacob Darwin Hamblin, originally published as “A Toxic Timeline” in Science 353:6296 (2016), 226.