Love Canal in New York state is now a Superfund site, but, back in the 1950s, it was an idyllic community full of post-war-boom houses and schools. Unfortunately, two of those schools – and an entire neighborhood full of family homes – were built on top of Love Canal, a buried body of water turned toxic waste dump. The Love Canal disaster came to a head in the late 1970s, when parents became alarmed at the rate of birth defects in their children. That, combined with a disturbing odor permeating the air, led to the realization of the Love Canal tragedy – residents were surrounded by dangerous chemicals, some of which were carcinogens. The federal government, led by Jimmy Carter, bought out the existing houses, closed down the schools, and began to clean up the area, or at least contain the toxins and keep them from spreading. Unfortunately, what happened at Love Canal occurred throughout the world in different forms, including at Chernobyl, site of a nuclear reactor meltdown.
Love Canal was built in 1893 with the intention of connecting the Upper and Lower Niagara Rivers. This would create a shipping lane that bypassed Niagara Falls and provide a space for industries that needed water for power and other means. However, the creator of the canal, William T. Love (hence the name of the canal) went bankrupt, leaving the waterway only partially completed. The businesses that were supposed to be located along the canal went elsewhere or went under, and the small finished section of the canal became a popular swimming hole for local children.
Between 1942 and 1953, Hooker Chemical Company – which produced chlorine, lye, hexachlorobenzene, arsenic trichloride and other, somewhat hazardous yet widely used chemicals – got permission from the Niagara Power and Development Company to dump their waste products in Love Canal. At the time, Hooker Chemical owned the land surrounding the canal, as well as the canal itself. Over the course of 11 years, they dumped 21,000 tons of barreled chemical waste into the body of water. By this point, the canal itself was 9,750 feet long, but only between 10 and 25 feet deep, depending on what part of the canal was measured. At the time, the barrels were thought to keep the chemical contained, but, as time would tell, that wasn't the case at all.
In 1953, the city of Niagara Falls, New York, (not to be confused with the town of the same name on the other side of the border in Canada) was growing. They needed space for a new school. Hooker Chemical Company moved out the area and sold their contaminated land to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1. Two schools were promptly built on the property, and Love Canal was capped with dirt. The Quit Claim Deed that signaled the change in property owners noted that there were chemicals dumped on the land, and, as a condition of the ownership transfer, Hooker Chemical could not be sued or made liable for damages that may have occurred because of them. The school board then built a playground directly over the filled-in Love Canal. Although they moved it later, it was still on contaminated ground.
Although the Niagara Falls School Board – and Hooker Chemical – had covered up the toxic waste very carefully, it was not immune to human foibles, especially those that took place during the construction of new buildings. In order for the school and housing development to have working sewers, construction crews had to dig into the soil. In doing this, they accidentally penetrated the clay cap that covered the canal (dirt lay on top of the clay), allowing the chemicals to begin to slowly leak out. The chemicals soon ran into the new sewer system, which lay under all of the structures in the area. Rather than remain contained in the covered canal, the chemicals began to spread throughout even more of the area.