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When anyone thinks about some sort environmental disaster, what comes to mind? A large explosion or a huge meltdown in an industrial area? The love canal incident was not an instant meltdown but a long slow process over time that became worse and worse. The incident developed over a period of time, since the effects of leaching chemicals is uncertain with very slow development it is hard to pinpoint the exact moment. The disaster could maybe of been reported earlier to make sure this wouldn’t of happened, but the end results show otherwise. The most important thing about Love Canal is that the acknowledgment of the danger that existed made a lot of people and businesses more aware of the hazards of abandoned toxic waste disposed on sites.
What led up to President Jimmy Carter and the New York Department of Health declaring Love Canal the nation’s very first federal emergency for a “non” natural environmental disaster that extend all the way back well into the 1890s when the entrepreneur William T. Love thought to build a canal to supply power to a industrial community called Model City (Deegan 329). Unfortunately, Love’s dreams were ruined with the discovery of alternating electrical current that enabled manufacturing plants to be located away from their source of energy. Still, Niagara Falls still became a center of chemical manufacturing due to the large amount of cheap electrical energy available. A chemical company that was attracted to the area of Hooker Electrochemical Company ( which is now a division of Occidental Petroleum Corporation), in 1942, the Niagara Power Company began using the abandoned canal to get rid of waste. About five years later, Hooker began purchasing the estimated three thousand feet long canal and then two seventy-foot-wide strips of land abutting it to the east and west (Levine 10). From 1942 until 1954, the love canal was filled with 22,000 tons of chemical wastes (Hoffman 6). The inventory which included 13 million pounds of lindane (which is benzene hexachloride), with over 4 million pounds of chlorobenzenes, and 420,000 pounds of dioxin-contaminated trichlorophenol, which in scientific research is mostly carcinogenic containing compounds. There are well over 200 identified chemicals put in the canal, but so many unknown oddities were present as evident of chemical reactions that took place in the complex mixture.
In and around 1953 the canal became full, it was then covered with clay to seal it. As the vicinity in Niagara Falls grew increasingly, Hooker had to sell all of the 16-acres of land to the Niagara Falls city school board for around $1. The deed for the land did include a disclaimer, but it only sated that hazardous chemicals were buried on the property and that it was cleared by the company, responsibility in the near future (Levine 11). The 99th Street Elementary School was constructed along with several houses, sewers, and some roads. The signs of hazards were identified in the early 1950s, the uneven fields with a lot of sink holes that happened from the decomposing barrels which produced strong odors, skin irritations on dogs and a oily substance in basements in the residents of the area. It was not until the mid-1970s when chemicals began rising to the surface which showed the seriousness of the situation. This action was put in motion by the construction of the LaSalle Expressway in the 1960s, which plugged up the groundwater from moving to the Niagara River and unearthed several barrels of chemicals (Hoffman 6).
The disaster reached an all time peak in the Summer of 1978 when the site was declared a federal emergency and 240 of the homes closest to the canal had to be bought out and destroyed due to contamination. A lot of panic from the residents led to more purchase of 490 more homes within a area called the Emergency Declaration Area (EDA). The national impact of this situation created the federal law to address an overwhelming number of sites that are in desperate need of cleanup. The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA or Superfund) started on December 12, 1980 under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take on this challenge (Hoffman 8). At the end of the evacuations, remediation efforts were held to contain the waste in the landfill. The EDA was cleaned up by cleaning the sewers, dredging 3,000 feet of creek bed contaminated from a lot of rainwater runoff, and returning tainted soil to the landfill. The government have spent an estimated $250 million and twenty years attempting to clean up this site.(http://web.globalserve.net/~spinc/atomc c/lovecana.html).
Now, the 40-acre landfill is surrounded by an nine-foot fence with warning signs all over it. Since there is a lack in technology, the removal of the toxic waste is next to impossible, instead the site is equipped with two big caps and a long barrier drain system, which are all daily monitored. However, the site will have to be maintained to ensure that the leachate doesn’t leak into water underground. In 1988, the New York Department of Health established that 240 of the 497 houses that had were abandoned are once again livable and the rest of the buildings in the area are suitable for commercial use since exposure would be reduced (Hoffman 9). In spite of the the state’s assurance (lol) that the homes are all ok to live in again, still many people are skeptical of the safety in that area. Epidemiological studies have shown that the people living close to the Love Canal have suffered from birth defects, a lot of miscarriages, still birth , cancer and respiratory disorders (see www reference). A standard risk assessment for the area was said to be unnecessary for the site in the health study that was conducted to determine if residents could live there. Instead a comparison was done of Love Canal and other towns near Niagara Falls, which showed only the levels of dioxins in the soil with a little bit of an indicator of chemicals.
The Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency (LCARA) firmly believes that the area has and will attract companies that are interested in making an environmental statement (Hoffman 25). It is said that the LCARA are selling the houses at 10 to 15 percent below market value to entice people to the area. A lot of the residents that endured the disaster have positive hopes for the future of the area. But still many people and children still carry a negative idea about the location. The settlement with Hooker was for $98 million for the cleanup and expenses that the EPA had added up and for the company to assume responsibility for the maintenance of the land fill’s leachate treatment system (Hoffman 29). Moreover, Hooker is working on improving communication and relationship between the chemical industry and the residents by involving the citizens in the decision making of operations. The final conclusion and the factor that determines whether or not Love Canal could still have a bright future is based on the people and if they feel they want to risk living at the site of a toxic waste landfill is somehow equal to the risk of living elsewhere.
Since doing my research for this project, it ceases to amaze me on how much Love Canal could have been any other town or my hometown in the nation and something very similar could have taken place. I was so astounded by the fact that the landfill with a project manager on board was ignored for so long before any notice was taken of its overwhelming dangers. This disaster seemed to really focused on the attention of the country to the importance of responsibility concerning chemical industry. In order to prevent any future occurrences, the support of Superfund and the awareness of the public to what is going on in their towns is vital. The attitude of people today about toxic waste being in my backyard is a resounding NO! Which is understandable when you consider that landfills like Love Canal exist. However, we all assume a certain amount of risk everyday in every part of our lives, so until there is a safe limit of exposure to chemicals or anything else the question is whether or not the risk is worth the safety. Now that is something that each individual or family has to decide for themselves. In the meantime, it is up to the companies, like Occidental/Hooker and the lovely government, like the EPA or Department of Health to maintain safe production limits and methods of disposing chemicals, so that another such environmental disaster won’t take place in the future.
Another future task that could be used would be to have OSHA or a inspector on board looking at the grounds before during and after. There seems to be a trend with malfunctions and spill with a lack of authority or regulators being present on job sites. A lot of problems only happen when the right procedures were not in place. In this case the right procedures were not in place. Taking the time to do what’s right results in a lot more money to the owner and employees as well as health and wellbeing for life. The unfortunate events that happened cost people their lives concerning money time and health. A disaster like this could be avoided in the future with pronounced inspections and even more understanding of what happened from events like this. These types of events that happen although are terribly sad, serve a great purpose for the future residents and people of this country to take extra precaution concerning the use of chemicals and procedures in and around a worksite that has people living near it.
Awareness is key for continuing safety and learning from our past mistakes. I think instances like this should be taught and brought up in every sense of the word “meeting” before anything gets built in the future. Not only for our sakes but our children’s sake.
- Deegan, John. “Looking Back at Love Canal.” Environmental Science and Technology 21 (1987) : 328-331.
- Hoffman, Andrew. “An Uneasy Rebirth at Love Canal.” Environment 37 (1995) : 5-9.
- Levine, Adeline. Love Canal: Science, Politics and People. Massachusetts: Lexington Books, 1982.
- Phibbs, Pat. “N.Y. state begins 5-year Love Canal health study that includes noncancer effects.” Environmental Science and Technology 31 (1997) : 81A.
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