MNN Galleries

8 moments that shaped the environmental movement

By: Shea Gunther on March 16, 2010, 6:28 a.m.
Love Canal, New York

Photo: Associated Press

2 of 10

Love Canal

In 1892, William T. Love tried to build a canal between the two levels of the Niagara River separated by Niagara Falls. He didn't get far — his canal was only about 1 mile long and 15 feet wide before he ran out of money and interest in his ideas subsided. After the canal was abandoned, it was used by local children for swimming and ice skating, but over time it turned into a local waste repository.

In 1942, the Hooker Chemical Company bought the canal and began dumping chemical waste. The company threw in more than 21,000 tons of deadly chemicals packed in 50-gallon drums, and by 1952, had covered the waste with dirt and vegetation. In 1953, Hooker Chemical sold the land to the local school board after telling the board about the dumping and including a clause in the contract releasing them from any legal obligations from future lawsuits. The school board ignored the warnings and built the 99th Street School on top of the buried canal. The area near the school was quickly developed into subdivisions. Soon after, residents of the neighborhood began to get sick.

In 1976, two reporters, David Pollak and David Russell, tested sump pumps in the area and found toxic chemicals. The following year, reporter Michael Brown did an informal door-to-door survey of the neighborhood for a story on the health consquences of the chemicals and found a high rate of birth defects and other abnormalities. By 1978, Love Canal was plastered across newspapers and TV screens. President Jimmy Carter declared it a federal health emergency and ordered the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to help Niagara Falls clean up the site, eventually relocating more than 800 families.