Thirty-five years after Love Canal’s oozing toxic waste scared away a neighborhood and became a symbol of environmental catastrophe, history could be repeating itself.
New residents, attracted by promises of cleaned-up land and affordable homes, say in lawsuits that they are being sickened by the same buried chemicals from the disaster in the Niagara Falls neighborhood in the 1970s.
“We’re stuck here. We want to get out,” said 34-year-old Dan Reynolds, adding that he’s been plagued by mysterious rashes and other ailments since he moved into the four-bedroom home purchased a decade ago for $39,900.
His wife, Teresa, said she’s had two miscarriages and numerous unexplained cysts.
“We knew it was Love Canal, that chemicals were here,” she said. But when she bought the house, she said she was swayed by assurances that the waste was contained and the area was safe.
Six families have sued over the past several months. Lawyers familiar with the case say notice has been given that an additional 1,100 claims could be coming.
The lawsuits, which don’t specify damages sought, contend Love Canal was never properly remediated and dangerous toxins continue to leach onto residents’ properties.
The main target of the lawsuits, Occidental Petroleum Corp., which bought the company that dumped the chemicals and was tasked by the state with monitoring the site in 1995, contends the waste is contained and that state and federal agencies back up those findings.
“Data from sampling over the past 25 years have demonstrated that the containment system is operating as designed and is protective of health, safety and the environment,” said a statement from Glenn Springs Holdings, the Occidental subsidiary in charge of maintaining the site.
The latest case is all too familiar to Lois Gibbs, the former housewife who led the charge for the 1970s evacuation and warned against resettling the area. She recently returned to mark the 35th anniversary of the disaster.
“It was so weird to go back and stand next to someone who was crying and saying the exact same thing I said 35 years ago,” she said.
Love Canal’s notorious history began when Hooker Chemical Co. used the abandoned canal from 1942 to 1953 to dump 21,800 tons of industrial hazardous waste.
That canal was later capped, and homes and a school were built on top of it. But snow melt from an unusually harsh winter in 1977 seeped into the buried 16-acre canal and forced chemical waste into groundwater and to the surface, oozing into yards and basements.
Residents began complaining of miscarriages, urinary and kidney problems and mental disabilities in their children.
With Love Canal getting national attention, President Jimmy Carter in 1978 issued a disaster declaration that eventually led to evacuation and compensation for more than 900 families. The crisis also led to federal Superfund legislation to clean up the nation’s abandoned waste sites.
Although complete streets were permanently bulldozed around Love Canal, those immediately north and west of the landfill were refurbished following a $230 million cleanup that involved capping the canal with clay, a plastic liner and topsoil.
Beginning in 1990, about 260 homes were given new vinyl siding, roofs and windows and resold at prices 20 percent below market value. The neighborhood was renamed Black Creek Village.
In addition to Occidental, defendants include the city of Niagara Falls and its water board and contractors enlisted by Occidental to maintain and test the site today.
An attorney for the city declined to comment on the pending litigation.
A spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency, while declining to address the lawsuits, called the area “the most sampled piece of property on the planet.”
“The canal has not leaked,” spokesman Mike Basile said. “The monitoring and containment system is as effective today” as when first installed.
But Reynolds and others say danger continues to brew beyond the 70-acre fenced-in containment area, pointing to the discovery of chemicals during a 2011 sewer excavation project. According to the lawsuits, crews worsened the contamination by using high-powered hoses to flush the chemicals through the streets and storm drains.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation concluded the contamination, 20 feet below ground, was an isolated pocket left over from before remediation and hadn’t recently leaked from the canal.
The Reynoldses are unconvinced that the containment system ever really worked and believe chemicals have been spreading for years, noting their home is just outside the original emergency zone.
Around the time of the sewer repair, waste backed up into their basement, they said, leaving behind an acrid black residue that tested positive for dangerous chemicals.
Gibbs said that when she returned recently, she was surprised the containment site no longer is posted with “danger” signs and that someone house hunting in the neighborhood wouldn’t know there are toxins there.
“It says private property,” she said. “It’s like a gated community for chemicals.”