Toxic dream ticket

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
William T Love had an American dream. In 1892, he planned to dig a canal connecting the rivers on either side of the mighty Niagara Falls. He intended it to supply cheap hydroelectricity for a model community. But the economic climate grew stormy and William abandoned his plans, leaving a scratch on the land, 20 metres wide and 1.6 kilometres long.

In 1920, this was sold to Niagara Falls City for use as a petrochemical dustbin. There were rumours that the military also chucked in a few noxious nasties. In 1947, Hooker Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, bought the site. For five years the levels of toxic waste rose where William had imagined water would fall. Then the corporation declared the site full and covered the canal with earth.

What happened next turned an everyday tale of industrial waste into a tragic blunder. Niagara Falls City needed space to house its families and educate the Baby Boom generation. The school board asked Hooker if it could build a school on the Love Canal. The corporation resisted, but the school board persisted, until Hooker gave in and sold the site for $1. Its contract included 17 lines waiving liability and explaining the dangers.

The board went ahead anyway. The builders hit the Hooker's clay seal over the canal. The seal resisted, but they persisted, and it broke. Houses were built and families moved in. For the next 20 years, the mainly working-class residents complained of strange smells and odd puddles in their backyards and the school playground. Garden spades clanked against corroding barrels of waste. Trees turned black and died. No one told them their neighbours included 20,000 tonnes of toxic waste.

Then, in 1978, a resident and mother, Lois Gibbs, noticed that children at the school were constantly ill. For three years she complained and campaigned. A catalogue of birth defects, cancers, stillbirths, miscarriages and urinary infections was uncovered. Eventually, the school was demolished, the people evacuated, and Lois Gibbs became the heroine who forced a reluctant government to tackle the dream that had become a toxic nightmare.

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