Legacy of the Original American Toxic Ghost Town

Twenty years after chemical waste made Love Canal infamous, debate over safety still rages.

For the Empire State, the summer of 1978 belonged to the New York Yankees and a small neighborhood on the eastern edge of Niagara Falls.

The Yankees went on to win the World Series. A neighborhood named Love Canal went on to become synonymous with toxic waste.

Two decades ago, on Aug. 2, state and federal authorities began the costly and controversial process of evacuating this tiny corner of the city. By 1980, it had became a modern-day ghost town. Today, 230 of the once-evacuated homes have been resold to new residents. State and city officials point to the neighborhood, renamed Black Creek Village, as a success story. But some former residents aren't so sure.

"It makes me sick when they say they're selling homes in the northern end," says Lois Gibbs, the housewife-turned-activist who now heads the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Virginia. "They should never have allowed people to move back." Former residents like Ms. Gibbs were never told when they originally bought their homes in the 1960s that they had been built along a massive chemical dump, which the Hooker Chemical Co. had sold to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953 for a single dollar.

Today, the Love Canal itself is a long 40-acre mound of clay ringed by a high chain-link fence and warning signs. The 22,000 tons of toxic waste are surrounded by drainage trenches, to prevent any runoff from the site. To the east, 100th and 101st streets are still home to 60 boarded-up homes. But streets like 99th and 98th were buried, along with 239 homes and an elementary school, in 1982.

The remaining 60 east-side homes will be demolished this fall. The 1988 Habitability Decision handed down by the state's Department of Health found the east side not suitable for human habitation, because of dioxin found in the soil. However that same study stated that an office park could be constructed there. That study also reported that the north side was habitable, allowing the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency to begin selling 239 modest two- and three-bedroom houses.

"I feel safe, I know what I got," says Sam Giarizzo, who lives just a few blocks north of the canal. He never left the neighborhood, choosing to stay through the evacuations. "People are moving back. Because after all this testing they found out that this place is safer than anyplace else in the country. We all know what we have in our backyards. But does the rest of the country know what they have?"

State health officials argue that the evacuations may not have been necessary, pointing to the media frenzy of the late 1970s as what actually pushed the federal government to approve the evacuation.

"The second evacuation may not have been necessary," explains state health official Kitty Gelberg. "There is no idea to this day whether or not there are any health effects associated with Love Canal."

Love Canal is now most associated with the Superfund, which was born out of what transpired here. It was set up by the EPA to hold polluters accountable for the cost of cleanups. The drama of 1978 also alerted the public to the danger of toxic wastes and, as Lois Gibbs says, "warned everyone to be aware of what's buried in thier own backyards."

* Go to The Christian Science Monitor online (www.csmonitor.com) for more photos and an audio story about Love Canal today.

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