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DEBATE OVER HAZARDOUS WASTE PLAN WAKES UP TOXIC LOVE CANAL ECHOES

ANALYSIS by David Staba

Only last week's late-season snowstorm prevented the overlap of the past and future of Niagara County environmental disasters.

Tuesday's blast of winter scrubbed a public hearing scheduled for that night at Lewiston-Porter High School, at which residents of both towns would have gotten their chance to tell officials of the state Department of Environmental Conservation exactly what they think of the plan to keep the nearly full Chemical Waste Management landfill open into perpetuity. Under the DEC proposal released in November, the agency would ignore a 17-year-old legislative mandate to find spots other than CWM's 700-acre facility, and instead formally designate it as the only government-approved resting place for toxic waste generated in 30 states and Canada.

A day later, the federal Environmental Protection Agency proposed removing Love Canal, the primitive ancestor of CWM's toxic wasteland at Model City, from its list of Superfund sites.

The EPA announcement was little more than a formality. The agency will continue monitoring test wells in the area, which is about all it's done in the years since the cleanup was completed. Since the agency hasn't been doing much or spending anything in the recent past, the proposal met with a collective yawn from the people who bought the refurbished homes adjacent to the fenced-off "containment area" that surrounds Love Canal.

"I'm not concerned about anything happening again," said Eric Bluff, who has lived across the street from the site of the demolished 93rd Street School for five years. "I love it here."

Even some who experienced Love Canal's impact barely shrugged when told of the EPA's decision.

Craig Rice grew up in the neighborhood, and was only 13 when his father died of spider cancer of the brain in the 1960s. He tells a story common among people who lived in the area before Love Canal became a nationally known name.

"We used to go over to Hooker's 102nd Street dump and throw rocks," said Rice, referring to the closed landfill near Love Canal, a site also recommended for delisting by the EPA last week.

"If you got a good one, it would spark. Sometimes, they'd catch fire."

Of course, those weren't rocks the kids were throwing, but chunks of phosphorous.

Despite such experiences, Rice bought one of the houses across from the 93rd Street School, where fumes leaking into the building helped sound the alarm in the late 1970s.

Like some other homeowners and officials involved with the resettlement, he has lingering doubts about the permanence of the cleanup. Only a fraction of the more than 20,000 tons of toxic ooze were removed. Most was just buried deeper, with a liner and leaching system meant to prevent further catastrophe.

Neighbors of the mammoth CWM landfill weren't nearly as blase leading up to Tuesday's scheduled meeting. Protests from Citizens for Responsible Government and the Sierra Club forced DEC officials to move the public-input session from the other end of the state -- their first choice -- to the area that would actually be affected by expansion and continued dumping at the Model City site.

The snow pushed that hearing back to May 6. A day later, Love Canal reclaimed the front-page space it once dominated in daily newspapers from the Niagara Gazette to The New York Times.

That timing was just the latest connection between the two chemical dumps.

The first came from the man who gave both sites their names, if not their functions. William T. Love's grandiose vision upon arriving in Niagara Falls in 1892 was to build a canal from the Upper Niagara River to Lewiston, where water falling from the 300-foot escarpment would provide cheap power for a city of 600,000 people. Evidently lacking the creativity with language he showed in getting government officials to go along with his plans, he called the new settlement Model City.

And go along with it they did. Politicians at the local and state levels couldn't give Love everything he wanted fast enough, from options on property -- he eventually owned or held the rights to more than 20,000 acres -- to the right to divert as much water from the Upper Niagara as he pleased, even turning off the falls themselves if necessary.

Shortly after the first factory was built in Model City, the national economic panic of 1894 evaporated financial support for Love's plan. Soon after, the proliferation of Nikola Tesla's alternating current, which could transport power far away and on the cheap, rendered the whole idea obsolete.

Aside from a smattering of houses and stores in Model City and the 400 yards of the proposed seven-mile canal that actually got excavated, William T. Love and his Model City went the way of King Camp Gillette's "Metropolis," landing on the scrap heap of failed Utopian schemes.

As for Love Canal, the abandoned ditch one-quarter of a mile from the Upper Niagara had filled in with rainwater and groundwater by the 1920s, providing a popular swimming hole for the children of LaSalle, the village recently merged into the City of Niagara Falls.

Needing a place to dispose of its share of the waste produced by the city's booming industrial corridor along Buffalo Avenue, Hooker Chemical bought the land and started filling the canal in 1942 with barrels of some of the most toxic chemicals known to man. Except at that time, either nobody knew the degree of the danger or nobody cared.

It's not as if the dumping was a secret. Trucks rolled down Buffalo Avenue for years, dumping thousands of tons of toxins into the 16-acre pit. Other companies, as well as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city itself, added their own chemical wastes to the growing cesspool, particularly during the industrial boom during and following World War II. Once it was filled, Hooker sold the land to the city's Board of Education for $1, the contract carrying a brief disclaimer saying that chemical waste had been dumped on the site and absolving the company of any liability. But if Hooker was trying to deter the district from building anything there or selling the land to developers who would, it didn't try very hard.

"We are very conscious of the need for new elementary schools and realize that the sites must be carefully selected so that they will best serve the area involved," wrote Bjarne Klaussen, a Hooker vice president, in a response to the school district's request to purchase the land. "We feel that the board of education has done a fine job in meeting the expanding demand for additional facilities and we are anxious to cooperate in any proper way. We have, therefore, come to the conclusion that since this location is the most desirable one for this purpose..."

Blinded by free land on which to build new schools and the potential profits of selling off the rest, the district set about building a pair of elementary schools -- one at the landfill's midway point and another adjacent to it.

With affordable housing in high demand in the city after World War II, developers eagerly gobbled up the property surrounding the site, built houses and sold them without giving what was fermenting under the surface much thought. City officials, who knew full well what had been dumped in the old canal, did nothing.

"The subdivisions there never should have been built," said Harvey Albond, who served as city manager after the disaster at Love Canal became national news.

Such development created seams in the compacted-clay foundation meant to contain the poisonous soup. Then came construction of the LaSalle Expressway, which kept storm-water runoff from leaching into Hooker's 102nd Street dump, as it had for years.

"Now you've got a bathtub with a plug in it, and the water's rising with no place to go," Albond said.

Michael Brown, then a reporter for the Niagara Gazette, wrote about homeowners with foul-smelling sludge seeping into their basements near the canal as early as fall of 1976. Melting snow left by the Blizzard of '77 and subsequent heavy rainfalls finally caused the bathtub to overflow. The boil that had festered and seeped for years finally erupted in the summer of 1978, leading to a cleanup that would cost more than $400 million and last for decades.

Amid the rancor and lawsuits that would follow, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Association set about repopulating what had become a ghost town of abandoned homes and schools. Houses closest to the site were razed to create the containment area around the canal. Those that remained were completely gutted, cleaned and put back on the market.

Banks were hesitant to float mortgages for those hardy souls willing to move in, so LCARA provided financing. Eventually, 239 homes were reoccupied. Today, no abandoned structures remain, and the neighborhood looks like most of the others located between Niagara Falls Boulevard and Buffalo Avenue.

One LCARA initiative didn't work so well -- the effort to remove the stigma from the area by christening it as "Black Creek Village." A few signs with the name dot community parks, but that's about the only place you'll see or hear the phrase.

"They tried to start calling it 'Black Creek Village,' but if I told people where we were buying a house, they'd say, 'Oh, Love Canal,'" said Bluff, who grew up less than 10 blocks from the neighborhood where he and his wife now live.

Love Canal may be an out-of-the-way section of the city, but its legacy remains central to life in Niagara Falls. Bring up the subject, and it doesn't take long to find someone who grew up there, or knew someone who did, or who chucked "rocks" to see them spark.

If you're in Cafe Etc. on Third Street, you might notice the vertical scar that runs up the back of the owner's close-cropped head. Steve Fournier grew up in Griffin Manor, an apartment complex that stood within the modern containment zone. At 13, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor and a cyst from his brain.

He was one of the lucky ones. Astronomical rates of cancer, deafness, miscarriages and birth defects revealed by study after study put the lie to any notion that the danger to those living near the canal was fabricated or exaggerated.

Last week's proposal to remove Love Canal from the Superfund list it inspired gives a bit of finality to the process, an anti-climactic footnote to follow last summer's observation to mark 25 years since President Jimmy Carter declared it a federal emergency area.

"I think there is (a sense of closure) for the people that monitored this and watched it closely," said Bob Merino, who served as LCARA's attorney from 1993 to 1997, when most of the affected homes were repopulated. "You went from the initial problems with removing the residents to the lawsuits, which was a 10- to 15-year period when people were torn apart physically and emotionally. Now you're seeing, hopefully, the end of the process."

Love Canal helped inspire another process. Community activists rarely made waves beyond their neighborhoods before Lois Gibbs and a group of other angry homeowners made industry and government finally do something about the disaster they had created.

One unfortunate side effect -- their success fueled the "Not-In-My-Back-Yard" mentality and tactics adopted by proponents of less-noble causes, like opposing group homes for people with disabilities because property values might drop.

The Residents for Responsible Government can thank Gibbs and the rest of the Love Canal activists that a hearing was even scheduled in the first place. Nobody sought public input before Hooker started dumping barrels more than half-a-century ago, nor did anyone have to compile environmental-impact statements or meet any of the other requirements to site or expand a landfill today.

The question facing CWM's neighbors -- does that process have any real teeth, or is it a dog-and-pony show designed to lull opponents into thinking the government is actually regulating multi-billion dollar corporations like Waste Management, the parent company of CWM?

Those opponents rightfully worry that the landfill will end up as the final resting place for almost 2.7 million cubic yards of PCB-infested mud dredged from the Hudson River during General Electric's EPA-mandated cleanup of a 41-mile stretch north of Albany.

CWM is sure to counter with the argument that there's already worse stuff buried at the 700-acre Model City landfill. The DEC, which doesn't actually regulate corporations so much as check their math, will certainly proclaim the technology involved as "the state of the art."

Of course, dumping 55-gallon steel barrels onto compacted clay and covering them with dirt was the state of the art 50 years ago. Look how that turned out.

The strongest argument against extending the life of the CWM landfill doesn't require highly paid scientists or extensive studies. It involves taking a drive around the area. Besides Love Canal and the 102nd Street dump, there's Mount Trashmore, the landfill that greets motorists crossing into Niagara Falls via the I-190. Then there are the brownfields along Buffalo Avenue, abandoned by corporations who fled as their dumping grounds filled up. And American Ref-fuel's garbage incinerator on 56th Street.

Let's not forget the Modern Disposal landfill in Lewiston, only a phosphorous chunk's throw from the CWM site, or the radioactive remnants of the Manhattan Project lurking nearby.

We won't even get into the myriad landfills and toxic waste sites throughout the rest of Western New York.

Add it up, and you reach a simple conclusion:

Enough is enough.

This is a case where the scientific hoodoo concocted by enormous corporations and rubber-stamped by sycophantic bureaucrats needs to be countered, not with dueling experts, but flaming torches and pitchforks. Yes, these facilities are an unpleasant necessity of our disposal-happy lifestyle, and they have to go somewhere.

But they don't all have to wind up in Niagara County.

When the public hearing is held at Lewiston-Porter High School on May 6, a capacity crowd should hear what CWM and the DEC have to say. Listen to all the reasons that this is a good plan, and a safe one.

Then stand up and say no.

Not here.

Not this time.

Not in my backyard -- for all the right reasons.

We've done our share.

And then some.


David Staba is the sports editor of the Niagara Falls Reporter. He welcomes e-mail at dstaba13@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com March 23 2004