At Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York in 1978, it did not matter if you were liberal or conservative, there was no left or right or otherwise. Such political allegiances become trivial to a community under relentless attack from a silent, invisible violence. The violence came from 21,000 tons of dangerous toxic industrial waste buried underground by the Hooker Chemical Company (now known as Occidental Petroleum.) The city of Niagara Falls had purchased the land from the company in 1953 for just $1 and then built a school on the site.
Lois Gibbs lived in the residential neighborhood surrounding the school with her family when news of the contamination of the ground beneath their feet made local headlines. Her children had been suffering from an array of unexplained illnesses such as epilepsy, asthma and urinary tract infections. Other residents also suffered from an array of serious maladies. Birth defects and miscarriages were far too common. Gibbs organized her neighbors into what was known as the Love Canal Homeowners Association. Through their stalwart grassroots citizen action, the disturbing plight of Love Canal residents was brought to national attention. Over 800 families were relocated from the area by the federal government and later, the Superfund program was created, which, until 1995, required mass-polluting corporations to pay for the cleanup of large-scale waste sites like Love Canal. (Check out the film "A Fierce Green Fire" which chronicles this and other important environmental fights that have taken place over the past fifty years. Go to:afiercegreenfire.com for details.) Occidental later paid back $129 million in a settlement to the federal government to cover the clean up costs.
And while the Love Canal has become a tragic example of the horrifying effects of reckless corporate misbehavior, it also reminds us that such environmental damage and destruction can linger on for decades. After the Love Canal site was deemed "safe" by federal regulators, some people unfortunately have chosen to move back into the area.
A recent article in Newsweek by Alexander Nazaryan details the past and present state of the Love Canal neighborhood. He writes: "And yet Love Canal clamors for our attention, and concern, once again. Some of the people who came to live in Love Canal after the government spent some $400 million and 21 years to clean up the site -- are claiming there is still poison in ground. Three lawsuits have been filed, with more on the way, claiming that 'toxins are leaching out every day.'"
Noting a connection between the company hired to perform the latest research on the state of the Love Canal site and the culpable Occidental Chemical Corporation (they were contracted by a subsidiary of Occidental), Nazaryan writes: "Superfund was supposed to compel polluters to pay for cleanup (an edict that was weakened when the so-called "Superfund tax" on industry was allowed to expire in 1995). At Love Canal, it seems like the very people who ruined the land have once again been trusted with its care. That wasn't how the program was supposed to work."
At a news conference in Niagara Falls on October 22, Lois Gibbs proclaimed: "How dare they say this area can be safe? This area can never be safe." She believes the entire site should be closed off forever, only to be used by researchers to learn more about these toxic wastes, their effects, and how they linger and permeate in the soil. In addition, she believes the state needs to take much more responsibility for the growing list of LoveCanal victims.
The push for corporations regulating themselves is a disturbingly familiar trend in our corporatized nation. Rejecting this flawed approach requires sustained, bold activism to ensure that the people are protected against the industries that cause criminal devastation and harm in the name of profit.
Thankfully, Lois Gibbs has not given up the fight. Far from it.
Building on her experience with the Love Canal, Lois Gibbs created the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (chej.org) in 1981 to help organize successfully hundreds of communities whose land and water has been poisoned by pollution and chemical wastes from callous corporations.
Some of CHEJ's national victories include: a defacto moratorium on hazardous waste dump sites since 1982, the passage of the Federal Right-to-Know law which provides citizens information about hazardous toxic substances stored or disposed of in their communities, and McDonald's ending its use of Styrofoam sandwich containers which can wreak havoc on the environment when burned or buried. CHEJ has raised awareness about the toxic plastic PVC and encouraged companies like Microsoft, Johnson and Johnson, Walmart, and Crabtree & Evelyn to stop using it in their packaging. They have also been on the ramparts in the campaign against harmful hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") that is threatening communities across the country.
CHEJ works to fight back against the epidemic of environmental assaults that continually threaten rural communities all across America by recruiting and training new grassroots leaders, building coalitions and developing victorious campaigns.
Politicians of all stripes can promise "hope and change," but real change will only come when more Americans decide to try their hand at civic action and start diligently watching over Congress, government agencies and corporations. Citizens need to speak up about injustices and misdeeds so that commercial and bureaucratic forces stop putting communities in danger. After all, what is more patriotic than preventing the poisoning and pillaging of your own country?
Lois Gibbs did not shrug her shoulders and say "I don't have the time or what difference would it make?" when calamity struck her and her neighbors. She is a testament to the fact that an ordinary citizen can command enough leveraged power to launch social movements that significantly improve our communities. It's easier than we think to start turning things around. We have to believe so and show up.
Many young Americans today are frozen with apathy regarding the state of our country, our politics, and their perceived powerlessness to make a difference. They need to study a little about the history of change. It all starts with a few people rising up. Thirty five years after Love Canal, let the work of Lois Gibbs and her neighbors serve as a reminder that collective citizen action is a powerful agent of change.
(Autographed copies of my book Told You So: The Big Book of Weekly Columnsare available from Politics and Prose, an independent book store in Washington D.C.)