It started with a green living dream

05 February 2007 00:00  [Source: ICB Americas]

Love Canal was supposed to be a green living dream in which energy and the environment, environment and nature would happily co-exist and flourish, so what happened?

ED ZWIRN/NEW YORK

It is no joke to say that one of the 20th Century's worst environmental nightmares began with a dream.

Love Canal was meant to be a perfect community. Around the turn of the last century, visionary developer William T. Love had the vision of establishing an eco-friendly, sustainable community on a small tract of land in upstate New York.

Love's idea was to ensure a reliable source of hydropower for his development by digging a small canal between the upper and lower Niagara River, generating clean energy cheaply to power its industry and residences.

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By the 1920s, in large part due to Nikola Tesla's discovery of how to economically transmit electricity over theretofore unthinkable distances by means of alternating current, the three-block site of the incomplete canal was converted into a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite. In 1953, then-owner Hooker Chemical Company sold it to the city of Niagara Falls for one dollar.

Blame aplenty

Of course, there was blame aplenty to go around. Hooker, according to news reports that circulated in 1978, had unsuccessfully warned the local school board that the former dump was an unsuitable site upon which to build an elementary school. The 100 or so homes that sprouted up around the site in the 1950s were also situated less-than-ideally, as it turns out.

The 25th year following the abandonment of Love Canal by Hooker turned out to be a record one as far as rainfall to the area. This was the immediate trigger of the leaching that began, according to experts.

"Corroding waste-disposal drums could be seen breaking up through the grounds of backyards," recalls Eckardt Beck, who visited Love Canal to investigate as a US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regional administrator at that time. "Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals."

Press coverage of the affair cited birth defects, miscarriages and other health maladies among the hundreds of families living in the most contaminated area, who were eventually relocated.

A front-page story in the New York Times on Aug. 1, 1978 led off with the fact that "82 different compounds, 11 of them suspected carcinogens," had been identified.

Residents who had been at least vaguely familiar with the history of their neighborhood seemed incredulous all the same. "We knew they put chemicals into the canal and filled it over," one woman, a long-time resident was quoted as saying. "But we had no idea the chemicals would invade our homes.

Model response

The US response to Love Canal was in many respects representative of the best the country's problem solvers had to offer.

Within a week, then-New York Governor Hugh Carey had announced that the state government would purchase the affected homes. That same day, President Jimmy Carter approved emergency financial aid for the area - the first emergency funds ever to be so granted for anything other than a "natural" disaster.

Also impressive was the more long-term legislative and regulatory responses which were to follow. Coming off a recent liberal decade or two that had seen the passage of the Clean Air and Water acts, the ability of environmentalists to effect subsequent passage of other laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the so-called Superfund legislation, may have seem less than miraculous, but their collective effect transformed the regulatory environment.

But, for all the reassurance such efforts ought to have produced, Love Canal, the Bhopal accident in India and other headline tragedies left the chemical industry faced with an image problem going far beyond the disclosures.

What the public in many cases took away from these disasters was a sense, articulated by the Love Canal residents, that the environment in the US was the unwitting host to a slew of unknown chemical contaminants, whether dumped into the ground or spewed into the atmosphere or water.

And nobody really knew the extent of what was out there, friends and foes of the industry alike were forced to admit.

"Obviously, it was things like Love Canal and Bhopal which have had an enormous impact these past 25 years," says Ted Cromwell, who until his recent shift to plant site security handled environmental issues at the American Chemistry Council (ACC).

He said that, in part due to efforts like Responsible Care, an ACC program, the toxic release inventory of total emissions to the air, water and land have been reduced by more than 75% since 1988. "We're real proud of that."

David Chatfield, a consultant on environmental issues who is helping the Synthetic Organic Chemical Manufacturers Association (SOCMA) develop its ChemStewards program, puts the passage of Title III of Sara (the Superfund Amendments and Reauthorization Act), the 1986 federal law updating 1980's so-called Superfund Act, as the point at which the disclosure corner was turned.

Regulations

What Title III did was mandate a series of "right-to-know" regulations, both on federal and state levels, throughout the country.

Communities now had the "right to know" the substances being inserted into their environment and the hazards posed.

Disclosure, which before had only come in fits or starts, and often after the "fact" of a disaster, was now to be the norm.

According to Chatfield, the disclosure requirements themselves gave management a powerful tool with which to approach their governing boards arguing for a cleanup, often at the same time as the competition.

"The original impact of Sara Title III, where companies had to publish their toxic release inventories, even though there was no legislation for reducing these numbers, was that companies started to reduce them anyway," says Chatfield.

Love Canal: A failed 19th Century canal attempt was used in the early 20th Century as a landfill for chemical waste by various parties. In the 1970s it became clear that it posed a serious health problem, forcing the state government to evacuate the entire neighborhood.

BHOPAL

The disaster and its Responsible Care legacy

The worst disaster in the history of the chemical industry, both from a human and corporate standpoint, occurred just a few years after the Love Canal revelations, not in North America but in southern Asia.

Just over 22 years ago, on Dec. 3, 1984, the residents of Bhopal, India were awakened in the middle of the night by a terrible burning sensation in their eyes and lungs.

An explosion at the Union Carbide pesticides factory was causing poisonous gas to be spewed throughout the city. More than 5,000 people were dead by the morning and hundreds of thousands were seriously injured.

The day after the disaster, Union Carbide CEO Warren Anderson flew to India to assess the damage. He was met at the airport and arrested by Indian authorities.

Once again, as with Love Canal, albeit eclipsed by the loss of life, the losses to the image of both the company and the industry it was a part of were enormous. Not only did Anderson's performance of evading extradition to India on criminal charges help feed industry critics, the fear of the unknown was also rekindled. None of the medical staff in the local hospital emergency room knew what the toxic gases actually were or how to treat the exposed.

Critics and industry officials have since been divided over whether the Responsible Care (RC) program pushed through by the ACC after Bhopal, was a public relations response.

Robert Elam, who handles Environmental Health and Safety issues at the ACC, says that RC "didn't come about specifically and solely in response to incidents such as Bhopal," noting that "industries could see the handwriting on the wall back in the 1970s."

"There was a shift in the whole way of doing business," he argues. [RC] "was kind of a broader trade association response to the changing times."

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