Niagara Gazette — The other day I time-traveled back 35 years to Love Canal, where Lois Gibbs and her neighbors once lived in pretty, little houses near the river. I walked a long lane bordered on one side by the ominous fence that marks the danger zone and on the other by overgrown, abandoned lots.
As the crowd of print and television reporters silently followed the mother-turned activist down the empty lane to nowhere, I was struck by a flood of emotion. We are still doing this.
We, the media, are still reporting on activists who are still saying “Don’t do that here! Don’t bring that poison into my neighborhood!”
And the cool, calm decision makers are continuing to act as if the angry activists are all worked up over nothing. Those who make the decisions tell the rest of us, “Don’t worry about that toxic waste. We are very smart. We have everything under control.”
Standing in the cold the other day at Love Canal, I found Gibbs riveting. In 1978, she was 27 years old and the mother of two sick children when she led the battle to move families out of her poisoned community near the Summit Mall. The other day she said she was sad to see not much had changed.
Gibbs, now director of an environmental center near Washington, said that the dump is leaking. She said residents who got the “all clear” to resettle around Love Canal are still getting sick. Some who live nearby the fenced site at 99th Street have filed a $113 million lawsuit against the state.
Her voice breaking, she said it was very hard to come back here and see the same things that she saw 35 years ago. “Love Canal will not be contained. It is impossible,” she said. “How dare they say this area can be safe?”
Then she got stronger. “The people who are responsible for this, Occidental Petroleum, the city of Niagara Falls, the state of New York and the federal Environmental Protection Agency, not only should be ashamed of what they did, they should be put in jail.”
Local activists, still at war, stood side-by-side with Gibbs at Love Canal. They’re not just fighting to make people aware of the leakage they believe is coming from the site, they’re fighting against the potential damage which might be done by other area companies, like Lewiston’s CWM, which is currently seeking government permission to expand their toxic waste site. They’re battling against the Niagara Falls plant, Covanta, which is undertaking a new waste incineration project that they believe will hurt the environment.
I’ve toured both of those companies. Covanta delighted me when I first saw it years ago. Burning garbage to make energy struck me as extremely logical. I also recently toured CWM in Lewiston, and I am convinced the company is doing the very best it can to keep all that toxic waste safe. It’s a beautiful facility, steeped in nature, with friendly, proud workers.
But, people make mistakes. They make bad decisions.
Gibbs says bad decisions are still being made. She wants the newly resettled residents moved out of Love Canal. She wants a health assessment of the families who had to flee. She wants the site turned into a research facility so we can learn more about the poisons in our world, to help prevent more from leaking into our land, our water and our bodies.
I’ve been told that in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the 21,000 tons of chemicals were buried with perfectly acceptable standards of the day. Nobody planned for the chemicals to leak. But, they did leak.
I think we ignore Gibbs and her fellow activists at our peril.
The policy makers and business owners, now making the decisions that so deeply impact the rest of us, must know that they are not immune to the poison. However well intentioned they are, they must know that the bad decisions they make today do not just threaten other people’s families — their own families are threatened as well.
Contact reporter Michele Deluca at 282-2311, ext. 2263.