When Richard Newman came to teach environmental history at RIT in 1998, nearly 20 years had passed since 250 homes were bulldozed on a 70-acre parcel in Niagara Falls known as Love Canal, one of the most toxic locations in the country.
Housewives there became activists after hundreds of people developed cancer and other medical ailments before the families were compensated to move away.
“I always thought Love Canal would be a fascinating case study for students,” said Newman, a history professor in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts. So he brought his classes to visit the area and had activists talk to his students. “I found it to be a really fascinating portrait of environmental disaster and environmental movement.”
Newman spent years researching Love Canal and wrote a book, Love Canal: A Toxic History from Colonial Times to the Present.
“Most other books were about what happened during and after the disaster, but didn’t put it in context or include the 18th and 19th centuries. The area had always been fraught with environmental meaning.”
The early settlers in the area interacted with Native Americans, trading food, furs and fish. “It was a crossroads. Once you get above Niagara Falls, there were highways to the interiors. When the Erie Canal came in, people thought about water power.”
In the 1890s, entrepreneur William Love wanted to create a waterfall to produce hydroelectric power and carved out a piece of land which became Love Canal. After that project was abandoned, Hooker Chemical Co., a leading employer in Niagara Falls, decided the canal would be a perfect place for a chemical dump. Baby boomers eventually built homes at the site, but more than 80 chemicals in the ground – which began to emit foul odors and made rocks smolder – caused medical problems for hundreds of residents.
Resident Lois Gibbs became president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association after two of her children became ill. She was a vocal and effective leader of the activism, which led to President Jimmy Carter designating Love Canal as a national emergency. In 1980, the area was designated the first Superfund site.
“Lois Gibbs was this force of nature, but she wasn’t destined for activism. She learned the art of politics and mobilizing overnight,” Newman said. “She was so forceful and dynamic, she pushed Love Canal into the spotlight. Not only was she successful keeping the Love Canal Homeowners Association together, she helped reshape the environmental agenda. Love Canal created this consciousness about your own environment and turned people into environmental activists.”
Newman’s book also looks at the aftermath of the evacuation.
“The impact to Niagara Falls continues,” Newman said. “The tourist industry would like to say that it’s buried and gone, the memory is long in the past and we don’t have to dredge it up. But other people think it’s an important way to show the heart and soul of Niagara Falls as an important environmental movement.”
Today, a chain-link fence surrounds the “containment zone” because many of the chemicals remain in a 20-block area at Love Canal. “It’s very eerie. It almost looks like a park now,” Newman said.