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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Years Later, Love Canal Stew Bubbles Up

LOCKPORT, N.Y. (CN) - Mishandling of a toxic "stew" of chemicals from Love Canal caused birth defects, cancer and other illnesses after they were released during sewer repair work in 2011, hundreds of residents near Niagara Falls claim in court.

More than 500 plaintiffs claim that "negligent, reckless, and/or ineffective remediation" at the infamous hazardous waste site decades ago allowed the chemicals to remain in a sewer line and create a "public health catastrophe" for residents who resettled in the area after it was declared safe for habitation.

"Although both state and federal authorities ordered the Love Canal area to be environmentally remediated, at present the toxins that defendant Occidental/Hooker wrongfully dumped on the site continue to escape from the Love Canal containment area, continue to be present in and around the sewers in the Love Canal area (including the homes of the plaintiffs), and continue to systemically invade the adjacent neighborhoods," the residents claim in 15 lawsuits in Niagara County Supreme Court.

The Buffalo News counted "exactly 1,000" plaintiffs. Courthouse News confirmed more than 500 of them.

Occidental Chemical Corp., successor to Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp., is named as a defendant in all of the lawsuits. Also named as defendants are the city of Niagara Falls, the Niagara Falls Water Board, and 11 entities involved at various times in remediation, maintenance and/or monitoring of the site.

Love Canal became synonymous with environmental disaster after long-buried industrial waste bubbled to the surface and contaminated a section of Niagara Falls. New York State and the federal government declared states of emergency for the site in 1978 and 1981, moving families out, razing homes and ordering a cleanup.

The complaints say Love Canal got its name from William Love, a local entrepreneur who in the late 1800s planned to dig a canal between the upper and lower sections of the Niagara River to create a waterfall that could generate cheap hydroelectric power for industry. The partially excavated project was abandoned after the invention of alternating current made it unnecessary for factories to locate adjacent to power sources.

In the 1940s, Hooker Chemical took over the site, and for the next decade dumped industrial waste into the canal, according to the lawsuits. Municipal waste also was dumped there by the city of Niagara Falls.

Occidental/Hooker "improperly dumped more than 21,000 tons of toxic waste on the Love Canal site, some of it loose and some of it in metal drums buried just beneath the surface," the residents say in their complaints.

Some 253 "distinct chemicals" have been identified in the Occidental/Hooker waste, according to the complaints, including benzene hexachloride, a component of the pesticide lindane, a carcinogenic neurotoxin; chlorobenzenes, used in the synthesis of DDT; and dioxin, also carcinogenic.

Occidental/Hooker sold the site in 1953 to the Niagara Falls Board of Education, which subsequently built an elementary school atop the capped dump. A residential building boom followed, according to the complaints, and by 1978, some 800 single-family homes and 240 low-income apartments were in the neighborhood.

Residents began complaining about noxious odors to state and federal environmental agencies in the 1960s; contaminated groundwater came to the surface in the 1970s, fueled by a series of wet winters that raised the water table.


After states of emergency were declared, cleanup began. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, a permanent leachate collection system, a 22-acre clay cap, and an activated carbon treatment plant were constructed on site. An extended, 40-acre clay cap followed in 1984, as did other remedial work.

Maintenance and monitoring of Love Canal was turned over to Occidental Chemical in 1995, according to the state. The company is required to file annual status reports on the site with New York and five-year reviews with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Certain areas around Love Canal were deemed habitable again by the New York Department of Health in 1988; other sections were limited to commercial and light-industrial use.

The new residential area was christened Black Creek Village, and according to the residents' lawsuits, some 260 homes have been sold there.

But the residents say the cleanup work "did not properly remediate the toxins within the Love Canal containment area and/or did not properly contain such toxins and prevent them from spreading throughout the Love Canal neighborhood from the time of its inception up to and including the present day."

They say that became apparent in January 2011, when as part of a larger sewer-repair project, excavation of a 50-foot section of sanitary pipe revealed the presence of "certain 'signature' Love Canal contaminants, including but not limited to non-aqueous phase liquids ('NAPL'), a toxic chemical 'stew'."

The residents say the discovery occurred within 250 feet of the northern boundary of the Love Canal containment area.

The find was reported to the city of Niagara Falls and to the state, which told Occidental/Hooker to develop a cleanup plan. But no one alerted the plaintiffs, who say they did not learn about the "dangerous nature of the chemicals ... until much later."

The residents contend the defendants failed to follow proper procedures to contain the chemicals, but engaged a subcontractor to "apply water from high-pressure hoses to the affected area of the sewers."

That only spread the contaminants, they say, "onto and into plaintiffs' property and homes, thus further exposing plaintiffs to dangerous toxins and causing them further harm."

As a result, "dangerous Occidental/Hooker toxins were continuously dispersed onto and into plaintiffs' homes following the Jan. 11, 2011 incident in addition to those Love Canal toxins which had been chronically and silently leaching, migrating, surfacing, escaping, and/or moving onto and into plaintiffs' homes throughout their entire occupation of said homes. Such dispersion and release continues to the present," the residents allege.

They say they have suffered personal injuries and economic harm. Among the physical complaints are birth defects, soft and/or crumbling teeth, gastrointestinal disorders, reproductive disorders, cancer and severe heart conditions, according to the complaints.

A report on the sewer incident from the state Department of Environmental Conservation concluded it was isolated, since no other pocket of chemical "stew" was found in any of the other 16 sites where sewer lines near the Love Canal site were repaired.

The report determined the chemicals had seeped from a damaged pipe into the soil bedding and that the section of sewer line had sunk before the Love Canal cleanup and the contamination was missed.

Said the report: "Investigation and laboratory data ... suggests the chemicals found do not extend beyond the sewer repair area and were contained within an isolated pocket of low-lying section of pipe buried within restrictive clay soils beneath the road's surface. The investigation determined that the contaminated bedding found within this section of sanitary sewer along Colvin Boulevard immediately east of 96th Street are not a result of current operations at the Love Canal site."

The plaintiffs, who include current and former residents of the area, seek compensatory and punitive damages, recovery of costs and expenses. They are represented by lead attorney William Mack of Phillips & Paolicelli in Manhattan.

The Buffalo News reported the number of lawsuits totaled 18, with three originally filed in 2012 and 15 filed this month as second amended complaints.

Others named as defendants include Occidental subsidiary Glenn Spring Holdings, which monitors the Love Canal site, and three companies involved in the sewer-repair incident, Scott Lawn Yard, Op-Tech Environmental Services and Roy's Plumbing.

A spokeswoman for Occidental could not be reached for comment on the complaints.

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