Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Love Canal; still stalked by a silent disaster

Years ago, Niagara Falls stopped being the scenic and romantic town tourists liked to imagine. It was done in by the falls themselves and all that water power. Water power begets cheap electricity, which begets factories, especially chemical factories here.

The highway into town is lined with chemical factories, each outdoing the other with great billows of exhaust. Most of the city smells like a plastic toy and an old lunch that have been left too long in a new car on a hot summer day.

About these ads

This whole city can be summed up in two words: water and chemicals. Mix them together right and you get modern technology. Mix them together wrong, and you get modern nightmares.

And the Love Canal has become the most notorious nightmare. This 100 -foot-wide, 3,000-foot-long trench is today a graveyard for some 200 chemical compounds instead of the waterway for a model industrial city its builder, William T. Love, envisioned. Love abandoned his grand project of diverting the Niagara River when someone invented alternating current, meaning factories didn't have to be hard by their power source. The ditch was eventually filled with chemical wastes by Hooker Chemical & Plastics Corporation, covered over, and sold to the local board of education. When rains inundated the area in the mid-1970s, the canal, in effect, overflowed.

The canal area itself is off in the eastern corner of the city, a few blocks away from a busy thoroughfare fringed with motels and chemical plants. It is a neighborhood of cheek-by-jowl single-family houses, with a 250-unit housing project and a 54-unit senior citizen development over to one side. It looks like a typical suburban neighborhood, complete with carports and swimming pools.

Except for one thing - the fence. The chain-link fence blocks off 16 acres of this neighborhood, 239 houses and an elementary school. In the center is the canal itself, a humpbacked patch of land, covered with only the stubbliest of brown grasses in the near-winter. The school is built right on top of the canal, and 99 of the houses, the so-called Ring I houses, back up to it. These are the backyards where the drums of chemicals poked out of gardens, where black slime oozed from cellar walls.

They're all empty now, and so are most of the other homes inside the fence, the Ring II houses. The fence goes from 97th to 100th Street, three long blocks in length, and makes a little detour at one corner, dipping down 99th Street, so that the stubborn occupants of two of the houses can reach their homes. Empty houses, 237 of them, windows boarded, lawns unkempt. Two occupied houses, next door to each other, startingly tidy in comparison. There are cars in the driveways, and even a huge blond dog barking at nothing.

The families in these Ring I and II houses were evacuated by the state starting in August 1978. But residents in the surrounding neighborhood, in many cases literally across the street from the fence, campaigned to be included in the relocation plan. In October 1980, the state and federal government designated a Ring III area, which made 700 more families eligible for relocation.

Outside the fence, the deserted Ring III houses are shabbier, windows more broken than boarded, gardens sprawling across the walkways. The shrubs are tangled with nightshade and other vines. Doors hang open. Several of the houses have been burned, perhaps by kids, perhaps by someone with a grudge.

About these ads

There are few cars on the streets, fewer people walking, no children anywhere in sight. Colvin Boulevard, the northern boundary of the fence, is a shortcut to a shopping mall; the cars accelerate going past the abandoned Wesley Methodist Church and are through the neighborhood with the drivers barely glancing at the stop signs. The city buses that cruise past are empty.

Across Colvin Boulevard, the houses are bigger, even luxurious. The regimentally numbered street names give way to ones like Moschel Court and Greenwald Avenue. But this, too, is part of the Love Canal area, and just as many houses are abandoned.

About 1 house in 3 is occupied outside the fence in this Ring III area. It's hard to tell with a few of them if they are lived in or not. And it is unnerving in this silent neighborhood to walk up to a front door, only to realize that the living room behind the picture window is barren.

Nearly everyone who wants to leave has left. The state owned 387 of the 556 houses in this outer ring by mid-November, and had plans to buy 20 more. The LaSalle housing project is four-fifths empty, the senior citizen development half full.

But look at those numbers again: Over 100 homes are still occupied. There are 58 families, including 77 school-age children, in the housing project, and 26 senior citizens next door. A few feel trapped here. Some others are giving up and leaving. But most of them like it here. They want to be here. It is their home.

And they are waiting. For four years, they have watched their neighborhoods disintegrate, the schools close, the businesses shut down, their friends move away.

The Love Canal Homeowners Association, the group that made Love Canal a household word and pounded on government doors until the state agreed to buy the houses here, is still operating. But its leaders are scattered in surrounding towns, and its president has moved to Virginia.

Now the hub of activity is a red three-bedroom house on the corner of Colvin Boulevard and 98th Street. This is the headquarters of the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency. The living room is the reception area, the kitchen has a photocopying machine, and one of the bedrooms is the office of the director.

It is this agency that has bought all the houses in the outer ring for the state, and, as its name indicates, is trying to figure out what to do with them now. But, like all the residents, it is waiting.

It can't start ''revitalizing'' until the Environme the store dashes back in: ''I forgot a quart of milk,'' he puffs.

''Oh, good, we need that sale,'' Mrs. Illig laughs.

Joe D'Amico has run the store for 20 years. His business is half of what it used to be, but he's trying to ride it out.

''I think people will start coming back, but I don't know if we can last that long.''

He offers that most of the people - well over half, he estimates -- who moved didn't really want to, just like Mrs. Illig. ''Would you want to live on a street of boarded-up houses?''

It wasn't the chemicals, ''it was a fear of losing everything you have,'' he says, that forced his customers out of the area.

Property values are uncertain in the neighborhood, to say the least. Just beyond the official boundaries of Ring III, houses stay on the market for months without a nibble.

Sales are ''almost at a standstill in that particular area,'' says Rondina Ferrusi, president of the Niagara Falls Area Board of Realtors, ''unless it's at a giveaway price.''That's $10,000 to $15,000 below value, she estimates, a considerable chunk out of the price of these modest suburban dwellings. ''It really hurts, doesn't it?''

People in the border area realize this, and don't even bother putting their houses on the market, she continues.

But two miles away, Mrs. Ferrusi's job is a lot easier. She is enthusiastic about Niagara Falls -- ''I love this city'' -- and points out that many of those who moved away from the canal didn't move very far. In fact, there is a subdivision less than one mile up 99th Street that was built expressly for people leaving Love Canal, she says. This was housing badly needed in a city of

77,000 which suddenlyhad 700 families contemplating moving all at once.

The Love Canal area used to be one of the most ''desirable'' parts of Niagara Falls. It is just far enough away from the downtown confusion to be both convenient and removed. It is near the shopping malls. It used to have two elementary schools within a few minutes' walk.

''I bought my house at that location because it had the cleanest air in the city,'' says James Carline, a member of the citizens committee pondering revitalization techniques.

Karl and Loretta Sturtevant have lived on Moschel Court since 1964 in a house based on a Frank Lloyd Wright floor plan. They are the only residents left on their street, but they have no intention of moving.

''I love my house,'' says Mrs. Sturtevant. She says a contractor has told her it couldn't be reproduced for less than $85,000. Her husband says that ''before Love Canal happened,'' a realtor told him the house was worth $60,000. The state agency offered him $43,000.

''Most people north of Colvin Boulevard left because it was like a hysteria, '' Mrs. Sturtevant says. ''They felt they'd be there with a vacant house next door.'' She labels it ''a domino reaction.''

She and her husband are thinking about retirement. Mr. Sturtevant will finish up 39 years with one of the chemical companies soon. Although they are happy in Niagara Falls now, they worry that if they decide in the future to retire to more a gentle climate, but don't sell to the Revitalization Agency before the deadline, they might be stuck.

''If we want to leave here, we may not be able to, because the house will have no sale value,'' Mrs. Sturtevant says.

''My nest egg was yanked out from under me,'' says her husband.

Mr. Sturtevant is also a member of the citizens committee pondering the revitalization of the neighborhood. The big question, he says, is how to convince people it's safe to live there.

''We need some sort of program to let them know what's going on. We have to lay it out to them with good facts.''

Revitalization Agency director Richard J. Morris is counting heavily on the EPA report to help his task, to provide the ''good facts'' the residents need to convince a skeptical public.

Mr. Morris says: ''We realize that in order to sell a house out here most of the people are going to have to be given the facts. They're going to want to know what this EPA report says, and we are hopeful that when this document comes out it will be constructed in a fashion that the average individual will be able to comprehend what it says and make his own decision as to whether or not he'd be willing to live out here.''

Morris lives just up the street from his office, in a house on Greenwald Avenue abandoned by people who feared it was contaminated by chemicals. He moved in a year ago with his wife, two teen-age daughters, and a dog and cat after the EPA assured him that this particular house was safe. (The report did not specify if the house used to be contaminated.)

On the wall of his office is a map of the neighborhood, with all the houses the state agency owns colored yellow, houses he wants to see reinhabited. He fully expects the EPA report to tell him most of them are perfectly habitable and give him the go-ahead.

''We're going to resell them, put them back on the tax rolls, and provide housing for some people who would like it,'' says Morris. These are the Ring III houses, outside the fence. In 1979, all of the property in this area was assessed at $5,059,310, according to Morris.

The Ring I houses -- those whose backyards abut the canal -- will surely be torn down. The Ring II houses across the street are more of a question mark right now. Some of them aren't worth saving because they are structurally below par, he explains. But some of them are good solid houses. The only thing working against them is their notoriety. There is also a problem with the storm sewers in Ring III.

Part of the work done on the canal itself involves blocking off the sewer system that crosses the canal. It was in these sewers that ''significant'' contamination was found, including dioxin, according to a New York State Department of Health report on Love Canal. Dioxin is among the most highly toxic man-made substances. These sewers are now being blocked off in hopes of preventing further migration of the chemicals, especially toward the Niagara River a few blocks away.

The rest of the ''remedial construction'' was geared toward the canal itself. Three years ago, the perimeter of the canal was dug up and a drainage system installed to intercept any contaminated water leaking out from the canal. The drain directs the effluent toward a leachate treatment plant built where the school's softball field used to be. The liquids seeping in are treated so the chemicals separate out, and the treated water is then pumped through the city's sewage treatment system before being released into the Niaga

The residual chamicals are still being stored on-site, in a 25,000-gallon underground tank, which Dr. Nick Kolak of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) estimates is two-thirds full after two years of operation. Their destiny is still undetermined.

In addition, a four-foot-thick clay cap was mounded on top of the canal, to prevent more water from seeping in. The canal is now a gently rounded grassy area. The cap will be extended over the Ring I area when those houses are torn down, and the area graded and seeded. All of this work is designed to contain the chemicals, keep them imprisoned in their clay cocoon.

''I think that within a year or two years, when the average tourist comes by and he looks at the Love Canal, he's going to be looking at what appears at that point a small park, or at least an open space along the line of a park,'' Morris says. ''He'll have to ask himself, 'What was so bad here?' ''

In fact, he says, his office already has a list of 120 people eager to buy or rent homes in the neighborhood, ''without advertising, without soliciting, without anything.''

''And this is based, I presume, on their knowledge of where this house is located.''

He points out that, ironically, the Love Canal area may someday once again be the most desirable neighborhood, but for very different reasons:

''When they're through doing the work here, the Love -Canal is going to be the safest place in Niagara Falls, for the simple reason it will have been tested and retested and looked at by everybody. . . . Whereas if you live outside the Love Canal, almost anywhere else in Niagara Falls, you don't know what's buried in your backyard because it hasn't been tested. There are a lot of dumps in the Niagara Falls area.'' One investigation by a Canadian newspaper found 105 dumps in the area.

Mr. Morris hopes to convince the DEC to improve the appearance of the fence, ''make it attractive and aesthetically pleasing.'' And he'd like to see it make a little dip around the school, so that the building can be used again.

''The primary idea for it is for a library,'' especially -archives on the Love Canal, he says. ''All the papers -- the good, the bad, the true, the fiction -- all the stuff.'' Other possible uses are as a boys' club or office space. The building is salvageable, he says, because it is built on a slab and has no basement, minimizing its contamination.

''I think that in the final analysis, you will find that whatever contamination or contamination source there was at the school is gone, so why tear down a $1 million school?'' he adds.

''The idea of having a library of the history of Love Canal is great,'' says Loretta Gambino, another member of the citizens committee and president of Concerned Area Residents (CAR). For 20 years she has lived across the street from the 93rd Street school, several blocks northwest of the 99th Street school. Mrs. Gambino would like to see that school reopened. Its contamination ''was tested and wasn't as bad,'' she says. When the two schools were built, fill from the 99th Street site was used at 93rd Street, which appears to be the source of contamination there. Neighborhood children are now bused to other schools in the city.

CAR has been the voice for the renters in the area, especially those in the LaSalle housing project in the southwestern corner of the area. The 58 families still there ''are the ones who really want to stay,'' says Frank Mannarino, manager of the project. The rest of the apartments are just as boarded up as the houses nearby.

It is a nicely laid out complex, the buildings arranged in gentle curving shapes that give each a sense of completion within the entire project. It is the newest of Niagara Falls' public housing projects, nine years old, ''the best public housing in Niagara Falls,'' says Mr. Morris. The grass is ragged between the buildings. It feels like the country imposed on the city. ''They hated to leave what was clear and away the best housing in the community.''

There are few people in sight. One man tinkers with his car engine. He isn't too worried about the chemicals. Neither is the woman who reaches out her door for her mail only seconds after the mail carrier leaves her doorstep. She has four children, she explains. Where else can she find an apartment large enough?

Another woman says that she lives here because she likes it; it's that simple. ''I've lived here eight years. I like it better this way,'' she says.

Just up the street is the LaSalle Community Center, a city-owned, low round wooden building at the corner of 95th and Colvin. Upstairs, it's office space, including CAR's small headquarters. Downstairs it's a gymnasium, easily the busiest place in the neighborhood.

If three or four or five teen-age boys aren't peppering the backboard with basketballs, 30 or 40 senior citizens are likely to be having lunch down there or setting up tables for a bingo game. It's downright congested, compared with the rest of the area.

There is a hot lunch every weekday for senior citizens. Bingo is on Tuesday, after lunch, and offers such practical prizes as packaged macaroni-and-cheese dinners and muffin mixes. Some of the people here are among the several dozen who still live in the half-full senior citizen complex just the other side of the housing project.

''Everyone who stayed is happy,'' says Peggy Eyerly, standing midcourt surrounded by big round tables. She is helping to count the money as lunch concludes and the bingo board is hauled out.

''I won't leave until they tear the place down,'' says another woman. ''If they hadn't offered everybody $400, most of them would still be here.'' The renters were offered a sum of money to cover moving expenses, and any major appliances they might not have in their new apartments that they had in their old ones.

Loretta Gambino thinks something should be done for the people who have stuck it out, renters and homeowners alike. Perhaps give some appliances to the renters, she suggests. Karl Sturtevant, who works with her on the citzens committee, would like to see some kind of tax easement, ''maybe for three or four years,'' maybe some kind of low-interest home improvement loan. They reason that the people who left were compensated for their trouble. The ones who stayed should be compensated also.

''We who did stay, we've gone through one big deal. We deserve something,'' says Mrs. Gambino. ''The area belongs to us, we have a say in what goes on in it , not the people who left.''

There are bitter feelings toward the people who left. Few have kind words -- or names -- for Lois Gibbs, the outspoken leader of the Love Canal Homeowners Association. Richard Morris calls them the shouters and screamers.

''One of the things that we see as being unfortunate about this whole thing is the fact that in order for people to get their homes bought and get out of here, you had to paint a terrible picture of the area,'' he says. That meant shouting and screaming and destroying the neighborhood's reputation.

As people fled the chemicals, explains sociologist Patricia Miller, the neighborhood became blighted, inviting burglary and arson. In the eyes of those still living there, the people fleeing ''rendered the neighborhood unfit to live in'' just by leaving.

But it works both ways: ''Anyone who continues to stay in the neighborhood is de facto the enemy,'' continues Miller. Those who left because they thought it was dangerous think those who stayed ''are withholding legitimacy from their view,'' the view of those who left.

Loretta Gambino claims that she has been receiving threatening phone calls, warning that her house is going to be burned, the way another CAR member's house was torched. Her house has been burglarized four times in the last three years. Loretta Sturtevant says she has gotten phone calls, harassing her for speaking out at meetings, asking her if she thought more of money and her house than her health.

Patricia Miller and Martha Fowlkes, sociologists at Smith College, have been studying past and present Love Canal residents for a year and a half. They have found that the people who still live in the area ''by and large don't believe they are in danger,'' according to Miller. She points out that many of them are people who have worked with chemicals. There are others, though, who ''genuinely want to leave, but the economics of the situation make it impossible.''

Miller says that sentiment toward Lois Gibbs and her -organization depends directly on how a particular person was affected by the chemicals. ''The more real the effects [on health], the more they believe in Lois Gibbs.'' Since most of the people left are more removed from the canal area, they tend to be the ones who felt effects less directly.

Then there is Peter Urban. He lives in one of the two still-occupied houses technically inside the fence, in one of the Ring II houses. He's lived there since the early 1940s, and intends to hand down his house to one of his five children. He's put another fence around his yard to keep in his noisy German shepherd, who is busy yipping at one of Mr. Urban's sons who has hung a deer carcass from the clothesline and is disemboweling it. Mr. Urban stands at the edge of the front yard, pointing toward the canal just across the street and the houses that back up to it.

''There weren't any chemicals there,'' he says. ''There weren't any chemicals coming out of their backyards; there was money coming out of their ears.'' If those neighbors had been on the USS Missouri with him during World War II, he says, he would have had to ''shoot them for cowardice.'' He points with disgust to the rubble collecting in the abandoned garages, the haphazard shutters on the houses across the street.

''I want to see the fence torn down, the whole area cleaned out, people move back in.''

Still they wait. When the EPA report is issued, the people who are left here will have at least glimmerings of whether they have hedged their bets well or not.''All the people who are left here want is a nice quiet neighborhood,'' says Dick Morris.

''All they want is to get rid of the stigma of Love Canal.ntal -Protection Agency issues its report on the area. The report has been on an any-week-now basis for months. Once a week, a citizens committee meets to try to figure out what it should do with the abandonded schools in the neighborhood, and how it can persuade people to move back here. Meanwhile, the agency tries to maintain the homes it owns and continues to buy up the last few houses of people who have grown tired of waiting and decided to leave while they can still sell their houses to the state.

Over on 101st Street, next-door neighbors are packing. Marjorie Brown says there will be three families left on this part of the street after they go. ''If we had a choice, we would stay,'' she says, standing in the kitchen door of her mustard-colored house.

Georgia Illig has lived in the adjacent brown house for 25 years. She had just finished remodeling her kitchen, bathroom, and carport when the trouble began with the canal.

''I thought I was set for life,'' she says. Now she is moving 20 blocks west, not because she wants to, she says, but because all her neighbors are gone. It is unsafe, not to mention lonely.

''The grass was waist-high in June,'' she adds. And there have been more and more unwanted animals in her yard - skunks, even rats.

Not only has Mrs. Illig lived in this neighborhood for 25 years, she has worked in it for 14. She still does, at Saracini Colvin Drugs Inc., the only store left in the Love Canal area. It's the kind of local store that sells everything from soup to nuts. Television sets are displayed above the cold cuts; stereo systems above the frozen foods. The van outside bearing the store's name delivers swimming pool paraphernalia. The store used to be busy all the time, Mrs. Illig says, two registers with long lines. Now she runs the one remaining register, with long waits between sales.

One customer who had just left

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.