President Carter's declaration of a state of emergency at New York's Love Canal promises residents a much-needed respite from the tensions and frustrations that have been building there in recent weeks. The decision to evacuate 710 more families from the abandoned chemical dump site and provide them with temporary housing is not the permanent solution that the tragic situation calls for. It will not answer the fears brought on by recurring reports that parents and children may have suffered possible physical damage from leakages of toxic chemicals. But at least, after two years of uncertainty and waiting, the frightened families now know the highest government officials in the land are, belatedly, taking their concerns seriously.
This is not to say that the response to the crisis at the federal, state, or local level speaks well of government's ability to protect the public in such instances. The Environmental Protection Agency's premature release of an unconfirmed study indicating an unusually high ratio of chromosone damage among Love Canal residents may have needlessly added to the atmosphere of panic. The researchers' methods and findings are being questioned by other scientists, raising doubts about whether the kind of illness uncovered in the study can be traced to the dumped chemicals. Moreover, the continued squabbling between federal and state agencies over which is to accept responsibility and the decision of the Niagara County Legislature not to assume a "moral obligation" to seek help for the beleaguered residents are hardly reassuring.
If there is any one overriding lesson to be gleaned from the Love Canal disaster thus far, it has to be the need for the chemical industry to shoulder greater responsibility for the disposal of toxic wastes. Recently enacted federal regulations covering the production, handling, transportation, and disposal of toxic substances should make the task somewhat easier in the future.
A firm such as Hooker Chemical Company, for instance, from now on must unquestionably recognize the importance of keeping local officials thoroughly informed of poisonous dumping. And periodic monitoring of abandoned dumps by county and state authorities should help ensure that any seepage is detected in good time.
If chemical companies have the technological know-how to develop toxic and other chemicals that in many instances are valuable to society, they must also possess the skills for devising means for rendering the waste products harmless. One way to avoid catastrophes of the Love Canal type is for chemical firms to devote enough money and research to ensure that such means are developed and used, whether high-temperature burning, recycling, neutralization, or other methods. Finding means for the safe disposal of wastes should be as much a part of production costs as development of the products themselves. If this means higher costs passed along to the consumer, then so be it. Better such costs than the suffering and emotional costs forced on the unsuspecting residents around Love Canal in recent months.