June 16, 2003

El Nino and Love Canal

One spring day in 1977, Karen Schroeder saw from her window that the liner in the fiberglass swimming pool in her backyard had risen two feet above the ground as a consequence of the year's heavy precipitation. When the pool was removed that summer, the hole it left filled with water laden chemicals...

from A Hazardous Inquiry: the rashamon effect at Love Canal Allan Mazur, 1998

This was part of the beginning of the events that lead eventually to the evacuations of many residents around the infamous Love Canal chemical dump near Niagara Falls, New York.

Between 1941 and 1954, the Hooker Electrochemical Company dumped 25,000 pounds of chemical waste in an abandoned canal. These wastes were both solid and liquid; some, but not all, were contained in 55 gallon drums. Many of the waste products were benzene variants. There was also 120 lbs of dioxin.

Hooker knew that the materials they were dumping were toxic, but their was little understanding of the effects on humans. In reviewing the activities of Hooker in the legal aftermath of the evacuations, it became clear that the chemical company had, at the very least, conducted its waste dumping activities at the level of best practice for that period.

The canal that Hooker used was dug in the 1890s to tap into the power of the flowing water in the Niagara river. It was about 1/2 miles long, 8-16 feet deep and 60-80 feet wide. The lower parts of the canal were in clay which is fairly impermeable; above the clay, the material was fairly permeable. Hooker buried their wastes as they went, but the company-specified 4 feet of cover was not always maintained.

At the time they began dumping the canal was right at the edges of the westward expansion of development around Buffalo, NY. Hooker was concerned about its liability. When the property was transferred to the Board of Education, the deed explicitly acknowledged that chemicals were buried at the site and it seemed to be understood that excavation at the site would increase the likelihood of mobilizing the material that was buried there. In the 1960s and 1970s the area around the dump developed into working- and lower-class neighborhoods. Part of this development was the construction of a school and playgrounds on the dump site, building of houses that abutted the site and the installation of sewers and other infrastructure that, in fact, did involve excavations that compromised the integrity of the dump.

So where do floating swimming pools and El Nino come in?

1976 and 1977 were El Nino years and it rained a lot in upstate New York. That rained filled up the canal and floated Karen Schroeder's pool. As the canal filled up, it brought a lot of the stuff that had been buried there with it. Now the stuff had been there all along and there had been El Nino's since the building of the dump, but the extent of the rains was record setting and the neighborhoods had reached the point the Karen Schroeder had a pool along side the canal.

The disaster at Love Canal was going to happen; the heavy rains may have hastened the inevitable. The industrial and health standards of the 40s and 50s reflected the "infinite sinks" notion of waste management and the infancy the field of toxicology. The planning and early management of the site did not foresee the continued suburban development that would eventually surround the site. The waste management and toxicological naivete can be understood; the failure to project the suburban development, I think, is more difficult to explain.

The question in my mind is "what are the modern day analogs to the best practices that Hooker was using?"