It’s been 40 years since Lois Gibbs, a young housewife with two sick children, led an uprising of homeowners at Love Canal.
Today, she’s as angry as she was back then at having to continue to fight the same battle over and over. Currently, she is counseling homeowners in Missouri about how to get officials to respond to an underground fire that no one seems to know how to extinguish, which is dangerously close to a nuclear waste dump.
“Yes, I’m mad as hell,” she said. “It’s 40 years and I have to go visit the group in St. Louis and work with those families to get the government to do what they should do automatically. These are innocent people, innocent families, innocent children. How can they do that? How can they sleep at night?” Gibbs asked during a recent phone interview with the Niagara Gazette.
On Aug. 7, 1978, then President Jimmy Carter declared Gibbs’ once peaceful and tidy neighborhood around Colvin Boulevard and 99th Street a disaster area, due to leakage from more than 20,000 tons of chemicals buried there. However, the government would only agree to move some families out, the ones closest to the toxic waste dump which it quickly enclosed. It took two more years of fighting by homeowners to get hundreds more families out of Love Canal, because they also believed their lives were in danger from the toxins, most buried there by Hooker Chemical, but also by the U.S. military and the city of Niagara Falls.
In the decades since, Gibbs has worked to counsel citizens on how to stand and fight for their right to live in communities that won’t make them and their families sick.
“When I go to the community, I can say you can do this because I did this,” she said.
Her credibility is a sort of benefit of Love Canal.
Right now, the battle is in Bridgeton, Missouri where a particularly stubborn underground fire beneath a dump is moving toward nuclear waste from the Manhattan project buried nearby.
The angry residents, some of whom have sick children, think the Environmental Protection Agency isn’t moving fast enough to help them.
Gibbs tells homeowners, “I walked in their shoes and this is where we ended up.”
So, where did she end up?
Her marriage didn’t survive the turmoil that followed her decision to lead the fight in 1978 against a big chemical corporation and local, state and national governments who appeared deaf to the cries of a frightened community.
Eventually, around 1,000 families were moved out of Love Canal in the early 1980s and when that happened, Gibbs’ husband, Harry, wanted his wife to return to her homemaking role. But she felt a responsibility to use what she had learned to help others. Their marriage broke up and Gibbs moved with her children to a suburb of Washington DC to start an environmental nonprofit in Virginia.
A friendship she developed with a scientist hired by the government grew into something more. She later married Stephen Lester, who is now the science director at the Center for Health, Environment and Justice.
Lester, who has a masters degree in toxicology from the Harvard School of Public Health, had been hired by the state as a technical advisor at Love Canal.
He recently recalled his first days at Love Canal, and hearing from state officials not to trust Lois Gibbs — while hearing from Gibbs not to trust state officials.
“As a scientist I said, ‘Well I’m not going to believe anybody,’ “ he said. “It took me about a month to realize that what I was hearing from Lois was the truth and what was really going on as far as anybody understood it at the time.”
Documentary filmmaker Will Battersby interviewed Gibbs and several other Love Canal housewives, including Luella Kenny, whose 7-year-old son, Jon Allen, died due to exposure to the chemicals that seeped into her backyard. “I can’t bring Jon back but I can save some other children. That’s my goal,” she told a reporter last year, when describing why she continues to speak out about Love Canal.
Battersby is finishing up a six-year documentary project called “The Canal,” that includes dramatic video of the homeowners, mostly women, demanding that public officials address their concerns back in 1978. It also includes homeowners who are still living in Love Canal.
He likens Lois Gibbs’ leadership of the homeowners to the awakening of the hero, Neo, in the movie “Matrix,” when he stumbles across an unimaginable new world he must learn to navigate.
“Lois saw the Matrix,” said Battersby about Lois’ leadership of the homeowners. “She suddenly saw their place in this. She had to learn the tools of democracy to be heard and to save the community. The lesson these women teach is how to save the community, if we’re ever unlucky enough to be in this situation.”
He described his awe at meeting Gibbs and hearing how a young mom with only a high school education learned to use the media to take on the chemical industry and the state and federal governments, including holding hostage two state representatives in 1980, to pressure the government to move out 829 more families. Though there were several hundred angry homeowners milling around the homeowners’ headquarters in an abandoned house, the hostage taking was relatively well-mannered.
In her book, “Love Canal: The Birth of the Environmental Health Movement,” Gibbs writes of the incident, two years after Love Canal was declared a disaster area, she and other neighbors took an EPA public relations representative and a doctor hostage because they weren’t getting fair market value for their homes so they could find somewhere else to live. She recounts in her book: “We had no guns, no weapons but for their own protection, I advised them to stay in our office. We had plenty of food, all homemade, and they could use the phone as they wished. ... I had no idea of what one did when holding hostages. I thought to myself: “Why didn’t I watch TV more carefully?”
Upon the deadline set by the homeowners, the government responded by saying they had decided to move more families out, including those in the second and third of three rings of homes in Love Canal. Relieved homeowners began moving out immediately, but Lois did not leave until 1981, when she took her children and moved to the suburb just outside of Washington, DC.
When Lois started a non-profit organization, called the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Falls Church, Virginia, she thought her main job would be to help people battle buried toxins, and describe for them how Love Canal homeowners responded.
“Actually, what I thought was I was just going to deal with hazards like the landfill because I know something they don’t know yet, and then I’ll be done,” she said.
She is not done yet.
“Then we had everything else,” she said. “Incinerators and fracking and consumer products and everything else. And, here we are, 40 years later, thinking, ‘Yeah, I’m going to retire.’ “
If she actually does retire, it will only be because of an upcoming merger of five different environmental and citizen action organizations.
“Our thinking was, we really need to build a multi-platform movement of working people, working poor, to address some of these issues,” she said.
The plan is to address multiple issues, from the environment to health care to immigration to criminal justice.
The merger will grow the power of her agency, which currently has just a handful of people, to nearly 70 employees, about 30 affiliates and a membership of seven million.
Social media will make the yet unnamed merged group even more powerful.
“We have literally millions of people we can reach with an email or Facebook post,” she said. “It also gives us longevity.”
Some things have changed since the days when Gibbs first started going door to door in Love Canal, to see if other families were experiencing the kinds of weird and inexplicable illnesses her children were battling, including her son’s diagnosis of epilepsy, which she said disappeared once she got him out of Love Canal.
Pete Lopez, head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 2, overseeing New York, New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, said the lessons of Love Canal were important to the way his agency responds to environmental crisis today.
“We knew a fraction of what we know today about the types of chemicals they were being exposed to and a fraction of what we know today about how to test for those chemicals,” he said during a recent phone interview.
“We had to learn how to clean up sites like this,” he said, adding, “Many of the techniques and applications that are used (today) are born of the experiences of Love Canal.”
However, currently in Bridgeton, Mo., where the fires rage underground, Gibbs says she sees the same sluggish response to act from both government and corporate officials.
She believes that Republic Services, the company responsible for the St. Louis incident, should have been held accountable 10 years ago.
“We’re really talking about corporate America,” she said. “Niagara Falls is an example of that. They ruled the people because they employed them and they have so much power.”
“Our answer is move the people,” she added. “If you can’t put the radioactive fire out, then move the damn people.”
Then a pause. “Sometimes, I just want to cry,” she said.
Gibbs and some Love Canal residents still believe there is toxic waste in the soil at Love Canal.
“The only thing cleaned was the sewer lines along the street and the creek. They never dug any of the contaminated dirt outside of the green fence,” Gibbs said.
The Environmental Protection Agency officials, including local spokesperson Mike Basile — whose wife grew up in Love Canal and who currently lives about a mile from the canal site — say the area has been cleaned and that close monitoring of the Love Canal site, inside and outside of the fenced in area, keeps it safe for current residents, some of whom purchased evacuated homes that were renovated and declared safe in the mid-1980s.
“I’m not just a spokesperson for the EPA,” said Basile during an interview in his downtown Buffalo office. “It affected my family.” His wife’s family was relocated to Devlin Avenue from Love Canal, and she and her family have no health issues from living in Love Canal, he said.
Basile, who regularly leads tours in and around Love Canal, is confident that the Love Canal chemical monitoring system is secure and effective.
Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster has expressed concern that continued talk about safety at Love Canal will trouble the current homeowners who remain in or have moved into the region, including an area now called Black Creek Village.
“I’ve been asked in the past whether I would feel comfortable living in surrounding neighborhoods and have family members live there,” he said, adding that with continued extensive monitoring for movement of the contained chemicals, “I wouldn’t be afraid to live in that neighborhood.”
Although there is litigation pending from past and current homeowners, Dyster feels certain the area is safe.
He points to his background as an environmental activist, noting he was vice president of Buffalo Niagara River Keepers, now Buffalo Niagara Waterkeepers —a nonprofit of volunteer protectors and restorers of clean water in the region — and only quit when he was elected as a city councilman in 1999. Back then, the Niagara Gazette declared him the first candidate in the city to call himself an environmentalist.
“If there was a problem with the containment, I’d be the first guy there,” he said.
40 YEARS OF LOVE CANAL
It’s been four decades since the Love Canal neighborhood became a symbol of environmental catastrophe. The Gazette is marking the anniversary with a series of stories. For more, visit our website at www.niagara-gazette.com