Niagara Falls, N.Y. — Driving through modern-day Love Canal is a little like revisiting a scene from that old television show ``The Twilight Zone.'' Rows of homes stand dilapidated on empty streets; window after window is silent and boarded. Many of the houses show signs of a past fire. Others are marked by graffiti or a waterfall of peeling paint.
And the only human being in sight on a drizzly afternoon is one teen-ager, who skateboards lazy zigzags down a deserted street.
It has been 10 years since seeping toxins at Love Canal, in upstate New York, brought the issue of hazardous waste to national attention - 10 years since President Carter declared the problem the first national emergency caused by man and 10 years since efforts began to create the Superfund, a multibillion-dollar federal program to clean up hazardous-waste sites.
But while the Niagara Falls neighborhood known as Love Canal has changed dramatically, the waste that made it famous still sits in drums atop the former canal-turned-chemical-dump-site where it was found.
This month the state's health commissioner is expected to decide whether the area is safe to live in - without knowing the effects of the toxins on the former residents' health and without being certain of how the area will be cleaned up in the future.
That's not to say that nothing has been done at Love Canal. Homes standing on the former dump have been razed and buried; the actual site has been contained with a clay-and-plastic cap and fenced off; contaminated sediment from nearby sewers has been removed and stored at the site; the state is working to remove toxins from two creeks in the area; and plans are under way to construct an on-site storage facility for the waste until it can be destroyed.
And Love Canal is by no means one of the country's worst examples of hazardous waste. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) currently lists 1,177 priority cleanup sites - and Love Canal is nowhere near being considered one of the most dangerous.
But as the site that spurred a national cleanup campaign, Love Canal remains a symbol.
To many, the very limited progress made thus far in the cleanup of Love Canal is representative of the legal, bureaucratic, and financial traffic jams that have plagued this nation's first decade of cleaning up hazardous waste.
Environmentalists say the problem begins with the term ``cleanup,'' which they deem inaccurate and misleading.
Of the 1,212 waste sites put on the EPA's list since 1980, only about 35 have been cleaned up enough to be called safe.
Experts say there are a number of reasons:
Technology. ``A lot of these sites can't be cleaned up with the technology we have today,'' says William Collette, organizing director of the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes.
And even when a method of cleanup is available, it can be difficult to use. Incineration, for example, has been proved safe and effective in destroying certain types of waste. But, according to George Murray of CleanSites, a Washington-based organization working to accelerate waste cleanup nationwide, many Superfund sites are not permitted to remove contaminated soil from their property and cannot transport waste to stationary incineration facilities. And while on-site incinerators are now becoming available, Mr. Murray says the wait for EPA approval can be long and the costs high.
Cost. Currently the costs of most cleanups are paid out of the Superfund - with the expectation that they will be recovered through litigation against the parties responsible for dumping the waste. On occasion, the responsible parties organize voluntarily to split cleanup costs before the work is done.
But if this litigation-oriented form of cleanup continues, says Joan Ebzery of CleanSites, ``the EPA's going to run out of money. They don't have enough in the fund now to clean up even half of the sites.'' The tab at Love Canal, for instance, has already reached $250 million - and actual destruction of its waste is not expected to begin for another five to seven years.
Bureaucracy. ``The Superfund process itself can be very cumbersome and slow,'' says David Cohen, the EPA's press director. ``It was set up to be that way. It requires community input ... it requires an attempt at cost effectiveness. This is the kind of program that when moving at full force won't be moving much faster than it is today.''
Approach to cleanup. Mr. Collette of Citizens Clearinghouse points to a past reluctance to relocate residents, instead attempting a cleanup when the appropriate technology is not available. ``There are times,'' he says, ``when you've just got to say, `This is not cleanable' ... and the only humane choice you have is to remove the people.'' It has taken some years for the EPA to move toward relocation in such cases, yet ``slowly but surely,'' Collette says, ``the EPA is doing that. They're learning.''
Collette also says quick cleanups are also hampered by the difficulty in determining uniform standards for cleanup - in deciding whether to remove all measurable contaminants from the site, to use a plot of uncontaminated land in the vicinity as a standard for cleanup, or to find some exact percentage of chemicals in the soil as acceptable.
Community resistance. Collette cites ``a high level of distrust between the EPA and residents of Superfund sites'' as another cause for slow-moving cleanups. ``There can be a great deal of animosity between the two,'' he says. And that can add to the delay.
Because of such delays, the 10 percent or so of Love Canal residents who chose to remain in their homes are still awaiting a decision on the future of their neighborhood.
While the state offered in 1978 to buy homes at fair market value, it also blocked the resale of any houses until the area was deemed safe to live in.
And after 10 years of boarded windows and sagging roofs, some believe the neighborhood can be restored.
William Broderick, who heads the Love Canal Revitalization Agency, says he is convinced the residential area can be rebuilt.
Mr. Broderick points to his list of about 400 names - all people interested in purchasing homes at Love Canal should the neighborhood be found habitable. ``Of course I haven't checked it out yet,'' Broderick says. ``I'm not sure if they're just people who want homes at bargain-basement prices.''
But he says he's optimistic. ``Most of the people at Love Canal didn't leave out of concern for health. It was more economic. They were worried about vandalism and crime in an abandoned area. Or they were people with grown children who were ready to move into smaller apartments.''
Many, of course, were also concerned about the falling market prices of their homes - and felt that selling to the government was their only sound economic choice. Although Broderick says he believes revitalization would be slow - ``we can't expect to sell more than 30 to 40 homes per year'' (currently 500 are empty) - he does claim that the stigma of Love Canal can be overcome.
``A lot of neighborhoods in the Niagara Falls area are built on sites filled in with chemical waste,'' he explains. ``I tell people that at least in Love Canal you know what you're living on, you'll know that it's safe.''
But others see the future of Love Canal differently.
``The state may say [the toxins] have not migrated from the fenced-in area,'' says Joann Hale, a former resident who stays involved in Love Canal activities, ``but there are more than 200 chemicals in that waste and they only monitor seven.
``I don't think people should be living in an area where they're only testing for seven or eight chemicals.''
It's difficult to assess the safety of the area for residential use, since no studies have been conducted on the health of current and former Love Canal residents in the past nine years. While many who lived there cite a variety of health problems and attribute them to the toxic waste, the New York State Department of Health is only now beginning to track down former residents to research those claims.
Mrs. Hale says she would like to see the neighborhood used as a testing ground, an education center, or even a drive-through park.
Patricia Brown, another former resident, who works with the Ecumenical Task Force in monitoring hazardous sites, says that an education and research center is a good idea for a place that has taught many lessons.
``We've learned a lot from Love Canal,'' Mrs. Brown says.
``We've learned we need to change our thinking. They might not really be able to clean up toxic waste. If so, let's face up to it. We need to stop creating Love Canals, to stop producing so much waste. We need to be careful of the chemicals we use. And we can all have a responsible part in that.