A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present
Written by: Richard S. Newman
Published By: Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Melissa Minners
When I was a kid, I could remember hearing about the toxic dump site that made everyone sick in upstate New York. I remember watching a television news reporter discussing how people had swam in the water at Love Canal and how the toxic chemicals were seeping into neighborhood yards, but that's all I can remember. In fact, to date, I have heard very little about Love Canal, despite this location and the toxicity uncovered helped spark an environmental revolution. When I saw Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present was available for review, I couldn't wait to read it.
Much of what I know about Love Canal begins with the discovery of the toxic dump that the neighborhood had been built on. A local chemical plant had decided to use a manmade canal to dump barrels upon barrels of toxic byproducts, covering it over with dirt and clay and eventually selling the property to the Niagara Falls School Board for one dollar in 1953. Drained and lined with clay, the Hooker Chemical Company thought this would be enough to contain the chemicals, but did warn the school board regarding this dump before it was purchased.
Despite the warning, development of the area began...not just surface development, but development that required underground digging for pipes, foundations, etc., undermining the containment that wasn't all that sturdy to being with. A toxic odor purveyed the air, children and animals suffered chemical burns in parks, cancer cases sprouted, miscarriages were reported, birth defects came about, during rain storms, barrels of toxic waste floated up in neighbors yards. Local residents joined forces to get government to notice and it was their grassroots fight that I heard about on the news.
Though ignored for some time, eventually the Federal Government realized the problem at Love Canal wasn't going away and, to make matters worse, other toxic areas were starting to crop up all over the United States. Love Canal would set the example for how toxic dump sites would be handled and would eventually inspire laws to prevent the dumping of hazardous waste the way Hooker Chemical Company and many other companies had been doing for decades.
But Richard S. Newman doesn't just cover the events directly leading up to the 1978 protests at Love Canal. He delves back even deeper, looking at how the area around Niagara Falls has been altered and misused dating back to colonial times. For example, did you know that the Love Canal site was originally intended to be a shipyard during the initial colonization of the area? Did you know that the falls themselves were slightly altered on the New York site to create a tourist attraction? Or that in the 1890s a man named William T. Love envisioned a hydroelectric city surrounding a canal that would connect the Niagara River with Lake Ontario? The creation of this unfinished canal, thanks to the collapse of Love's funding, is what created the opportunity Hooker Chemical Company needed when it was looking to dump its hazardous chemical waste byproducts.
Newman also looks at the activism involved in getting residents evacuated and the site remediated. He follows the original activists lives to an extent that we know what they are involved in today. He reminds us that many of the activists that brought Love Canal to light were housewives and what anti-feminist attitudes they had to endure while fighting to help their ailing families. Newman then explains why we don't hear about Love Canal anymore - some of it has been repopulated, despite the protests of former Love Canal families. Renamed Black Creek Village, perhaps to take some of the stigma off of the location, the area was supposed to be safe to live in, but residents are already reporting problems that can be linked to exposure to toxic chemicals.
I was captivated by this story. Not only is Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present represent a piece of my history, but it is a reminder how careless we have been with the Earth we have given. Never truly cognizant of the damage it will do, companies continue to emit hazards in the name of technological advances and greedy landowners continue to downplay hazards in an effort to make money on land sales. It's a vicious cycle that will never end, despite the efforts of hardworking advocates all over the world. The lesson of Love Canal must never be forgotten and this book should be shared with each and every generation so that they can know what taking the Earth for granted can mean for the billions who inhabit it.