MORE than 16 years after the evacuations of Love Canal began and toxic waste was thrust into the national spotlight, controversy still rages in this small corner of Niagara Falls, N.Y.
Former residents vocally criticize the latest state plans for proposed new construction at the site.
Earlier this month, the state accepted a Buffalo developer's bid to build houses for low- and moderate-income families on the empty fields just a few yards west of the 77-acre Love Canal Treatment Facility. Meanwhile, just to the east of the filled-in canal, tentative plans call for a small shopping mall and an office park.
At present, the east side consists of more than 100 boarded-up homes. This area was found to be nonhabitable for residential use by the New York Board of Health in 1988. It had been evacuated in 1980.
Those who used to live in the neighborhood say their primary concern is that the toxic waste was never cleaned up. The 22,000 tons of chemical waste buried in the 3,000-foot-long canal still rest there. It is contained by what state officials describe as a state-of-the-art treatment facility.
Lois Gibbs, a housewife at the time, led the charge for evacuating residents in the late 1970s, when many people living near Love Canal believed that waste seeping from the canal site was the cause of the high rate of birth defects and other serious health problems in the area.
Evacuated homes resold
Today Ms. Gibbs is the executive director of the Citizens' Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in Washington.
``When in doubt, when you don't know what will happen, and you do know what happened in the case of Love Canal, then prudence says you don't do that,'' Gibbs says of the plan to build homes and offices.
``You don't move people in there. Whether it's light industry, residential, or something totally different,'' Gibbs continues, ``why take the chance? It is not a matter of no other places to build on. It is a matter of the state trying to cover up Love Canal and pretend that it didn't exist, pretend like it was not a threat.''
Gibbs has also opposed the resale of homes in the area, which began in 1990. He has seen many of the once-evacuated homes sold to new tenants at below-market rates.
``That is an area in which I lived,'' she says. ``That's an area where many of my neighbors lived who lost children. I think it's very dangerous, and I don't think it ought to be ... it's a foolish thing.''
The Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency was created by the state to sell off the old homes and assist in the planning of new developments in the area.
Harvey Albond, executive director of the agency, says sales of homes are ahead of schedule. Of the 250 houses put on the market since 1990, 117 have been sold and 50 more are under contract. He says his biggest battle has been changing attitudes about the area, which is now officially called ``Black Creek Village.''
``There are all types of perceptions people have had of the area,'' Mr. Albond says. ``It is difficult for me to [reconcile] the perceptions of 15 years ago with perceptions of today.''
State testing disputed
``There are those who were extremely vocal in 1978, whose perceptions have never changed,'' Albond says, referring to Gibbs. ``And ... there are those who stayed in the area as residents.''
``Given the benefit of hindsight and all the testing that has been done,'' he says, ``we can determine ... that there were some areas that were not contaminated and never have been contaminated.''
The chief complaint from former residents concerns the testing to which Albond refers.
The state and federal governments spent millions of dollars in the 1980s testing the neighborhood's soil, houses, and air. This came after the 239 homes that ringed the canal were demolished and buried along with an elementary school. Some 550 other homes in the area were evacuated.
The decision to resettle the area was based on these studies, which showed that this section of Niagara Falls was no more polluted or toxic than other parts of the city. Critics say, however,the key point is that no former residents were tested.
``It is criminal to move people in here when test results have not been given to people that were evacuated here,'' says Joanne Hale. She says that her entire family has experienced serious health problems since being evacuated 16 years ago.
``In 1978 and 1979, people were moved out for health reasons,'' Mrs. Hale says, ``and yet all they've studied is the land, the air, the water, and the insides of some of the homes.... And they moved us out for health reasons, but they have yet to test our health 15 years later. How come? And they're moving people in a generation later ... it is criminal.''
Pat Brown agrees. Her oldest daughter, concerned about possible birth defects, decided this year not to have children of her own. Ms. Brown is standing alongside Hale looking at the neighborhood they once called home.
``It'll happen again,'' Brown says. ``And of course we'll still have the same question: Is it because I live in Love Canal? Or is it not? because those questions have never been addressed.''
New residents unconcerned
But those concerns don't seem to bother the hundreds of new residents living in the once-empty houses. Ken Winard bought a home in the spring.
``We like it here; it's quiet,'' Mr. Winard says. ``As far as Love Canal, we don't pay any attention to that. I feel it's safer here than anywhere else; I mean, they cleaned this up; what about the rest of it out there? It's safe here.''
Construction on the new homes west of the canal is expected to start in the spring.