The Lost Lessons of Love Canal

Thirty years ago Thursday, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal
a federal disaster area. The decision came after the discovery that
the Niagara Falls neighborhood was built on top of 20,000 tons of
toxic waste that had been dumped by a chemical company.

The Love Canal contamination tragedy is very personal to me. In 1978 I
was living there with my husband and two children when I began to
wonder whether the kids’ recurring illnesses were connected to the
chemical waste. Research conducted by myself and several of my
neighbors, coupled with our complaints, eventually led the New York
State health commissioner to declare a state of emergency and close
the area’s 99th Street School (where my son Michael attended). That
was followed by the evacuations of mothers and children under the age
of 2.

Then, Carter stepped in and the federal government was ordered to
provide funds to relocate more than 200 families living within the
first two rings of homes encircling the Love Canal toxic waste site.

As one of those living beyond the first two rings of homes, I was told
my family was not at risk. As if toxic chemicals which had leaked from
their “protective” drums into my son’s schoolyard could never cross
the streets into our own yards.

I remember the feelings of disgust and anger and fear when I learned
that this toxic reality was likely the cause of my son’s illness. I
remember the looks on the faces of my neighbors as I went door to door
and learned that they, too, had children with rare health issues or
had lost a child over something so preventable, so cruel and

That was in 1978, and sometimes a colleague or someone in the media
will now ask me when I am going to “let Love Canal go?” After I shake
my head in disbelief, I tell the person that no mother could ever let
go of something that threatened her children and the children of those
living around her. Worse, even today children continue to be at risk
to toxic chemical threats simply by living in communities and
attending schools that are located within 1 mile of a site considered
toxic by the EPA.

What good mother could let that go?

All these years after the tragedy that happened at Love Canal, the
creation of the Federal Superfund cleanup program is in jeopardy.
Superfund — started by Carter in 1980 — makes polluting companies
and industries pay to clean up their mess. A tax on toxic chemicals
that are found in contaminated sites creates the trust fund, which
grew to $1.6 billion at one point.

My neighbors and I were relieved that the government had finally taken
responsibility for protecting people and land from toxic pollution.
The source of the program’s funding, “polluters pay fees” was the most
important aspect of this legislation. It held the polluters
accountable, and was a major victory for communities fighting toxic
and chemical threats everywhere.

But in 1996, Congress chose not to renew the polluters pay principle.
This means the trust fund dried up of polluters’ fees in 2003.

So who foots the bill now? You guessed it. Taxpayers, not polluters. I
always told my children, “you make the mess, you clean it up.” The
rules should not be different for companies who bring toxic or
chemical threats into the communities where our children play and
attend school. How can Congress side with the companies who cause
toxic contamination instead of the people threatened by that very

Now, the responsibility falls entirely on the taxpayers, to the tune
of $1.2 billion. Something smells funny and it’s not just the toxic
odors. We need to make sure Congress makes the polluters, not the
taxpayers, pay for the Love Canals of today.

Let Love Canal go? Never. I continue the battle for all of our
children. For me this journey started at Love Canal. And I need
everyone to continue on this journey with me.

Lois Gibbs is founder and director of the Center for Health, Environment
and Justice
. She lives in Falls Church, Va.