Company 'Settles' Debt for Love Canal Scandal


Company 'Settles' Debt for Love Canal Scandal
reprinted from
The People
January 27, 1996



A new -- but perhaps not final -- chapter was written last month in the saga of the Love Canal, one of the nation's highest profile cases of toxic pollution. The company responsible for most of the pollution, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp., was bought by Occidental Chemical Corp. in 1968. Last month, more than 20 years after the pollution was "discovered," Occidental finally paid the government $129 million, ostensibly to "cover" the costs of "cleaning up" the toxic Love Canal site.

In 1978, thousands of frightened, angry residents, many with their health already seriously impaired, abandoned their homes along the Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to escape the dire effects of some 42 million pounds of chemical wastes that had been dumped in the area between 1942 and 1953.

The health threat in the area was known for some time before a state of emergency was officially declared on Aug. 2, 1978. A wide range of serious health problems, from miscarriages to nervous disorders, all traceable to the chemical pollutants, had reportedly been documented as early as 1974, and seepage of hazardous chemicals was reported as early as 1971.

The long line of health disasters was capped in 1978, when almost a third of residents tested proved to have chromosome damage. This revelation helped precipitate the evacuation of the neighborhood despite heavy financial losses and other burdens that it placed on the working-class families affected.

Four years after the exodus, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a report declaring sections of the Love Canal "habitable." Former Love Canal residents greeted the report with healthy skepticism, but the conclusion was endorsed by what was then the federal Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which issued a statement to the effect that the Love Canal was "as other parts of Niagara Falls and...other residential areas in industrial towns around the country." That rationalization may have been on safe ground: The Niagara Falls area had 38 industrial waste landfill sites and several chemical plants, so the menace of toxic wastes existed in other parts of the city and surrounding area.

In October 1981, HHS ruled that the whole of the canal area was habitable. It reversed that decision when the National Bureau of Standards criticized the methods used to evaluate the situation. The day before a new EPA report was released that described the area as "habitable," the HHS reasserted its original conclusion that the Love Canal was safe to inhabit. Yet not long after, a $7 million project was initiated to clean up contaminated sediment in sewers, creeks and other areas along the canal, after which the area was again declared "habitable."

In fact, Love Canal remains what it was before it began to seep in the 1970sQa toxic time bomb waiting to explode. In 1953, it was covered over with a clay "cap." When the EPA "cleaned it up" in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it merely removed the most contaminated topsoil to another location and covered it with another clay cap, and covered the remaining wastes on the original site with a new clay cap.

To the financial woes and serious medical problems, which the Love Canal tragedy inflicted on workers and their families, must be added the emotional upsets and deep feelings of insecurity the whole experience produced among the victims of this "routine" capitalist disposal of industrial waste.

Occidental's stockholders, on the other hand, probably barely noticed the costs of the "cleanup." The multibillion-dollar company managed to stave off paying cleanup costs for two decades, and then paid in present dollars, avoiding payment of what would have amounted to $80 million more if the "cleanup" had been paid for when it was done.

What happened along the Love Canal is a tragic example of the horrors capitalism visits on society, and chiefly on working people, as the capitalist class pursues its insatiable drive for profit. To dispose safely of the toxic chemical wastes that result from the operations of capitalist industry would cut into the profit extracted from the working class. To redesign production so that toxic wastes would not be produced at all would cut even further into profits; hence, the compulsion to dispose of those wastes in the most inexpensive way.

As THE PEOPLE has reported many times since the Love Canal tragedy, besides the hundreds of hazardous waste sites already identified, thousands of other potential Love Canals exist across the countryQeach of which is awaiting only the passage of more time to reveal themselves as grim testaments to the antisocial character of capitalism.