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Congress, residents question if Love Canal 'habitable'

The Will's back lawn is golf-course plush and surrounded by 50 rose bushes. A pet duck waddles across it. ''I love our home,'' says Amelia Will.

Barely 200 yards away is one end of Love Canal, national symbol of the problems of hazardous waste.

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Last month the federal government released a controversial report saying that this area called ''ring three,'' the site of the 550 homes, is ''habitable.'' Now Amelia and Robert Will are resting a bit easier.

But the report faces tough scrutiny in Congress this week, and the debate threatens to polarize the community even further.

''Look where the trees are,'' Mrs. Will points. ''That's where they are knocking the homes down. Right over there.''

''Right over there'' seems a world away from the serenity of the Wills' house. A snorting bulldozer scoops up rubble from a half-razed house, sending clouds of dust into the air.

Between 1942 and 1953, the Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation (now called Hooker Chemical Company) dumped waste into a trench originally intended to serve as a canal connecting the upper and lower levels of the Niagara River. About 21,000 tons of chemical waste was dumped into the 100-foot wide, 3,000 -foot long trench and then covered over.

In early 1978, an oily black substance - later found to be a mixture of dozens of chemicals, many toxic - bubbled up through the grass covering the dump site and oozed into neighboring backyards.

Since then more than 700 families have been evacuated. Several dozen have returned, while others like the Wills, who live in ring three, never left and don't plan to.

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On May 21, 1980, President Carter declared a state of emergency in the Love Canal area. Later that year, as more and more chemical dump sites were discovered nationwide, Congress established a ''superfund'' within the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to help pay cleanup and relocation costs.

The 99 houses that stood in ring one, the area closest to the dump, have now been demolished. When the bulldozing stops, the 128 houses making up ring two will be gone, leaving only a few trees in an empty field.

About a third of the homes in ring three, many of which are rundown, will be torn down largely because of their low resale value. The remainder will be will be sold by a state agency, the Love Canal Revitalization Agency (LCRA). In the past 18 months the LCRA has bought up 406 houses, ranging in price from $7,500 to $90,000. More than 200 would-be purchasers are on a waiting list, and sales are expected to begin soon after the agency's board meeting in September. The agency also plans to reopen a nearby public housing project.

LCRA executive director Richard J. Morris is eager for the sales to begin. Long before the federal report was issued July 14 he had moved into a third-ring house himself. He points out that with vandalism (despite expensive security measures) and poor maintainance lowering the resale value, he, like many other residents, wants to sell as soon as possible.

The LCRA chairman, Niagara Falls Mayor Michael C. O'Laughlin, also wants the houses sold quickly and returned to the tax roll, although the city is receiving some state aid to compensate for the tax loss.

Planning may be easier than doing.

The report calling the third ring habitable was the result of a two-year study sponsored by the EPA. Now US Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D) of New York has branded the report ''messy and inconclusive.''

Actually, the announcement that the area was safe to live in did not come from the EPA itself. The decision was made by the US Department of Health and Human Services after it had reviewed the EPA findings on the levels of toxic waste. The EPA reported that the original dump had been capped with an impermeable layer of clay and no chemicals had migrated into ring three. But it did find plenty of evidence that toxic waste was still present in nearby creeks and in the storm sewers crisscrossing the Love Canal area.

House hearings on the EPA report were opened Aug. 9 by US Rep. James Florio (D) of New Jersey, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Transportation and Tourism. The hearings will probe whether the area is really as safe as the government says, or whether, as some critics charge, the Reagan administration is caving in to redevelopment interests.

The Love Canal Home Owners Association and the Environmental Task Force also question the federal findings and are protesting the redevelopment plans; many members are also suing the Hooker Corporation for large amounts of money. Home Owners Association president, Lois Gibbs, outraged by the report, plans a series of local meetings.

But a growing group that call itself ''Concerned Area Residents'' disagrees.

In a Monitor interview, Loretta Gambino, president of Concerned Area Residents, says its members are losing patience with former residents who are seeking settlements for their homes and want to keep the issue stirred up. She claims she has been ''harassed and threatened with firebombs''; the home of the group's vice-president was in fact firebombed. Members of the group are behind this harassment, Mrs. Gambino contends, though she has no proof to offer, and a spokesman for the homeowner's association denies any involvement in such threats or violence.

Meanwhile, some officials of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) are concerned that redevelopment will begin before all toxic chemicals are removed from the creeks and storm sewers, a process that could take another two years, according to congressional chemical-waste experts.

But Richard Morris of the Revitalization Agency maintains that strict attention will be paid to environmental concerns and that no homes will be be sold before checking with those performing the cleanup work.

Regional EPA officials say they have no ''legal tool'' to stop redevelopment. They say they hope to monitor the work being done, but this seems unlikely, some critics say, since EPA's role in the Love Canal area is being phased out.

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