Love Canal: Worst Environmental Tragedy of the US - The Constructor (2023)

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The Love Canal in the US was named after William T. Love, who in the mid-1890s imagined a waterway linking Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. He trusted that it would serve the region's industries with the much-required hydroelectricity. However, because of the economic slowdown, Love's arrangement fizzled. Just 1.6 km of the Love Canal portion was excavated towards the north side of the Niagara River.

The development plan of the canal was deserted when a segment of the canal, around 1000 m long and 24 m wide, had been excavated up to a 6 m depth. In 1942, the Hooker Chemical and Plastic Company bought the relinquished site from the Niagara fall authorities and started utilizing the canal as a dumpsite. The company used to dump process slurries, pesticide residues, and waste solvents. Altogether, around 22,000 tons of waste in metal drums were dumped in the canal during an 11-year time frame. After putting the metal drums in the canal, they used to fill the top with a soil cover.

In 1953, the civic authorities of Niagara city bought the Love Canal site from the Hooker chemical and plastic company for $1 million. After that, residential colonies and primary schools were constructed on the site. In 1970, the residents of the Love Canal site started complaining about serious illnesses.

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During 1975 and 1976, heavy rainfalls occurred in the region and raised the groundwater table. Due to this, the chemical drums resurfaced, and odors from chemical substances were noticeable close to sewer vents. Many houses with basements, were closest to the Love canal site.

The black sludge water filled inside the basements and generated a strong smell. After several experiments conducted by authorities, it was known that the residents of the Love Canal region were experiencing a high rate of birth defects and premature deliveries. Thus, the government authorities pronounced a highly sensitive situation at the Love Canal site and declared the first National Emergency due to this environmental tragedy.

Researchers conducted tests on the canal site, and it was found that more than 200 different types of chemical compounds were present at the site. Out of 200, at least 12 compounds were carcinogens. The government ordered to clean-up the site to reduce the spread of the chemical waste. Thus, more than 5800 m3 of sullied soil was removed from the Love Canal site.

After removal of the soil, 1-m of clayey soil cover was placed over a 7-hectare area of the site. Further, a second layer of the polyethylene clay liner was placed over a 16-hectare area. In addition, the sewer lines of 200 m length were cleaned up. More than half a billion dollars were spent to clean the Love Canal site.


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  • 1. History of the Love Canal
  • 2. Environmental Degradation of Love Canal Site
    • 2.1 Investigations and Findings
  • 3. Remedial Actions
    • 3.1 Initial Development
    • 3.2 Solution for Landfill Contamination
    • 3.3 Solution for Sewers and Creeks
    • 3.4 Thermal Treatment of Sewers and Creeks Sediments
    • 3.5 Solution for Primary School
    • 3.6 Home Maintenance
    • 3.7 Short-Term Remedial Actions
  • 4. Lessons Learned
  • FAQs

1. History of the Love Canal

The area of the Love Canal landfill is 16 acres, and it is in rectangular shape. The landfill is located at the southeast end of the Niagara Falls city within the Niagara county. The total population of the city is 77,000..

Aerial photographs of the Love Canal from 1938 portray the canal to be 1000 m long and just about 24 m wide. The canal site stretching out on a north-south axis and approximately 450 m away from the Niagara River. A significant part of the Love Canal bed had impounded water in 1938. Also, there was no noticeable proof of waste contamination in the canal. People of Niagara Falls city used to utilize the excavated portion of the Love Canal as a swimming pool.

Niagara country was and still is a major hub of chemical industries. Assembling of synthetic products was and is a significant mechanical venture of Niagara County. As indicated by the 1950 data, there were nine significant chemical-producing organizations with a total number of 5000 employees. There were roughly 100 chemical dump sites in the region, out of which the Love Canal was one of the dumpsites.

The Hooker chemical and plastic company admitted that between 1942 and 1954, around 22,000 tons of chemical waste was deposited in the Love Canal. It was acceptable at the time that the organizations didn't use liner to prevent leaching.

The industrial wastes of Hooker Chemical included different residues of chlorinated hydrocarbon, fly ash, waste sludge, and different materials, including solid waste generated by the city of Niagara Falls, was disposed at the Love Canal site for many years. Roughly 200 chemical waste products had been identified at the Love Canal site. The chemical waste was originally deposited at the site in liquid and solid form in metal drums.

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Later on, the company clarified that the site had been picked in light of the fact that it was scantily populated at that time, despite the fact that six homes were present nearby the canal. Another factor, and a crucial one, was that the soil present underneath the Love Canal was soft clay. Due to the low permeability characteristic of soft clay, the company chose the Love Canal site for dumping their chemical waste. Thus, the potential for groundwater contamination was limited.

In April 1953, Hooker sold the Love Canal property to the City of Niagara Falls Board of Education. Construction of houses directly adjacent to the landfill was accelerated in the mid-1950s, and in 1954, a public elementary school was constructed at the center on the one third land of the Lovel Canal property. By 1966, two roads crossed the landfill from north and south of the school. By 1972, most of the houses with lawns straightforwardly adjoining the landfill were constructed.

2. Environmental Degradation of Love Canal Site

Despite the fact that the disposal of chemical waste at the Love Canal dates back to the mid-1940s, the contamination of homes situated close to the Love Canal site was not apparent until the mid-1960s, when occupants started complaining about vapor and minor blasts.

When the LaSalle Expressway was constructed in 1970, corrosive waters and harmful fumes were encountered. Also, during the construction of Read Avenue, the metal drums were uncovered during the excavation work. Due to that, the poisonous gases and chemical liquid were released, and work was stopped several times.

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Poisonous gases and liquid chemical substances were found in different sewer lines, generally toward the west of the site. In addition, land subsidence in the playground of the school happened routinely, and the subsidence were occasionally filled up with soil. Authorities from the school complained to the health department of the city that students happened to get in contact with phosphorous and received burns.

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In 1975, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) led its initial examinations of suspected draining into close by sewers and sumps. After examining the site, NYSDEC appointed an ecological counseling firm to conduct its own examinations and later assisted the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH).

2.1 Investigations and Findings

In 1978, NYSDOH described the findings as quantitatively huge levels of chemical products. For example, toluene and a few benzene mixes in sump tests from nine homes, which were located near to the Love Canal site. Yet nothing was done to correct the situation. It was not until the mid of 1979 that an unpreventable pollution of the whole area became evident.

The Niagara Falls and its close by area are known for having freezing winter conditions with snowfall. In addition, the record-breaking snowstorm of 1979 and a few other tempests led to significantly colder winters and higher precipitation than the regular one for the region.

In summer of 1980, there was a huge leaching of chemical waste products at the Love Canal. This was known as the bathtub effect, whereby water permeated through the soft clay and blended with the waste chemical products, and leaked along the side through sand and silt as the canal channel flooded. The chemical contained in the Love Canal, rose to the ground surface and moved into the basements of the nearby houses.

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Finally in 1980, the NYSDOH announced a highly sensitive situation at the Love Canal and requested the closure of the primary school. The subsequent order of NYSDOH suggested that the families with kids younger than two years and pregnant ladies living closest to the Love Canal should shift temporarily. NYSDOH marked the area near the canal as ring-1 and the area across the street as ring-2 and designated them as high risk zones.

Community living within the Love Canal boundary were requested not to use their cellars and not to consume any food from their nurseries. The request expressed that there was evidence suggesting higher danger of subacute and chronic health hazards. Also, the NYSDOH report stated that unconstrained premature births and intrinsic mutations might possibly occur.

The chemical compounds recognized at the Love Canal site could adversely affect all human physiology systems antagonistically. Five days after the NYSDOH order of 1980, the then president, Jimmy Carter, announced an emergency situation in the region, the first ever emergency in the US for hazardous waste.

The remedial actions taken to improve the Love Canal site are discussed in seven stages: Initial development, five major remedial actions, and short term actions.

3.1 Initial Development

In 1978, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) introduced a framework to gather leachate from the Love Canal site. The landfill zone was shielded, and a treatment plant was built to remove all the leachate generated at the site. In 1981, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) constructed a fence around the entire Love Canal site and investigated the whole area.

3.2 Solution for Landfill Contamination

In 1982, the EPA chose a solution for containing the landfill by building an obstruction channel and a leachate assortment framework. Significant works directed by EPA were:

  1. Covering the soft clay with an impermeable material to prevent the rain-water from coming in contact with the chemical waste. Thus, further generation of leachate was prevented
  2. Houses and the neighboring area of the Love Canal site, which were contaminated, were demolished
  3. Conducting investigations to decide the ideal approach for cleaning the Love Canal site
  4. Continuous monitoring was done to conduct the cleaning process effectively.

Further, the NYSDEC introduced a land cap on a 40-acre area and improved the leachate assortment and treatment plant, including the development of another leachate treatment plant.

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3.3 Solution for Sewers and Creeks

In 1985, the EPA proposed a solution to resolve the problem of the sewers and the springs, which included:

  1. Sewers were cleaned hydraulically
  2. Residues of chemical waste were removed completely from the site, and necessary arrangements for disposal of residue were made
  3. Sewers were inspected for cracks and defects that could permit the chemical waste to percolate
  4. Black creek ducts were hydraulically cleaned, and access to such ducts were blocked

In 1986, a total of 60,000 feet of sanitary sewer lines were cleaned by the state. An extra 6,500 feet were cleaned in 1987. In 1988, waste sediments from the black creek ducts were excavated of roughly 12,000 cubic yards. Clean riprap was put in the creek ducts, and the sides of the ducts were planted with grass.

3.4 Thermal Treatment of Sewers and Creeks Sediments

In 1987, the EPA chose a solution for disposal of the dioxin-contaminated sediments from the sewers and creeks, which included:

  1. A facility was developed on-site to contain the dioxin sediments
  2. A thermal destruction facility was developed to treat the de-watered impurities with the use of high temperature
  3. Residues generated from the leachate treatment plant were treated in thermal destruction facility
  4. An incineration process was adopted for on-site removal of any non-hazardous residuals

In 1998, the EPA declared that a treatability variance factor of at least 10-ppb should be adopted for dioxin available at the Love Canal site. The sewer residue and other chemical waste materials were sent offsite for disposal. This activity was completed in the year 2000.

3.5 Solution for Primary School

EPA chose a solution for the primary school property that incorporated the digging of roughly 7,000 cubic yards of chemically contaminated soil near the school, followed by stabilization and solidification. This solution was reconsidered because of the concerns raised by the education board of the city, with respect to the reuse of the property in the future.

In 1989, the EPA changed its plan and gave the proposal of disposing the excavated soil from the site rather than solidification and stabilization. This was agreed by the education board, and the activity was finished in 1992.

3.6 Home Maintenance

Most of the properties near the site was contaminated. Thus, the federal government and the New York State bought all the contaminated houses and paid money to the property owners. Also, the federal government assured to provide properties to the owners in the nearby government area.

3.7 Short-Term Remedial Actions

The following points describe the short-term remedial actions, which were completed in 1993:

  1. Excavation and removal of sullied pipe bedding and replacement with new line was carried out by the Frontier Avenue company.
  2. The EPA developed a process of removing the pesticide-contaminated soil, and the site was backfilled with clean soils.

4. Lessons Learned

In 1970, the biggest environmental failure at the site came to light, and the government of Niagara city passed a resolution to created the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act.

The following points describe the major lessons that can be learned from the worst environmental failure of the Love Canal:

  1. To protect the public health, it is most important to properly dispose of the hazardous material.
  2. Selection of site and preparation for disposal of hazardous material on-site should be consulted with certified geologists and environmental authorities.
  3. Treatment plant and collection of leachates at landfill site should be provided. Also, proper lining and earth covering should be provided at landfill sites.
  4. Awareness about the health effects of hazardous wastes should be promoted by the state and federal governments.


Where is the Love Canal site located?

The area of Love Canal landfill is spread across 16 acres, and is rectangular in shape. The landfill is located at the southeast end of the Niagara Falls city within the Niagara county. The total population of the city is 77,000.

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Who dumped the hazardous chemicals at the Love Canal site?

The Hooker Chemical and Plastic Company bought the Love Canal site from the Niagara fall authorities and started utilizing the canal as a dumpsite. The company used to dump process slurries, pesticide residues, and waste solvents.

How much of waste materials were disposed at the Love Canal site?

Around 22,000 tons of waste was put in metal drums in the canal during an 11-year time frame.

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What was the environmental issue at Love Canal? ›

As it turns out, consecutive wet winters in the late 1970s raised the water table and caused the chemicals to leach (via underground swales and a sewer system that drained into nearby creeks) into the basements and yards of neighborhood residents, as well as into the playground of the elementary school built directly ...

Why is Love Canal an environmental disaster? ›

Hooker Chemical purchased the land in 1942 and lined it with clay. Then, the company put into Love Canal an estimated 21,000 tons of hazardous chemical waste, including the carcinogens benzene, dioxin, and PCBs in large metal barrels and covered them with more clay.

Who was at fault for the Love Canal disaster? ›

During the 1940s, the canal was purchased by Hooker Chemical Company, which used the site to dump 19,800 t (19,500 long tons; 21,800 short tons) of chemical byproducts from the manufacturing of dyes, perfumes, and solvents for rubber and synthetic resins.

What happened in the Love Canal controversy? ›

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.

Why is the Love Canal tragedy important? ›

Love Canal was a major turning point that shaped environmental policy in the US. It is widely cited as the beginning of the anti-toxics movement and was a landmark event in the grassroots struggle for compensation.

How did the chemicals affect people in Love Canal? ›

From 1974 to 1978, 56% of the children in the Love Canal neighborhood were born with a birth defect, including three ears, a double row of teeth, and mental retardation. There were almost three times as many defects in historically wet areas. State health authorities quickly dismissed the study.

Are there still chemicals in Love Canal? ›

Municipal wastes, as well as some fly ash fill, were deposited in the canal. Reports that the federal government buried radioactive material at the Love Canal have not been substantiated.
Toxicological Investigation.
Chemicalδ-Benzene Hexachloride
Water & Leachate6.9 µg/l
Air0.4 µg/m3
Soil & SedimentID
27 more columns

What was the main cause of death on the canal? ›

Drunkenness was by far the most common contributing factor to the death of adults not working on the canal system.

Do people still live in the Love Canal area? ›

Today, there are still a few occupied homes on 101st Street and many on 93rd Street, but there are also plaintiffs in the new Love Canal litigation who lived on 93rd Street and say they got sick, some of them recently.

What was learned from the Love Canal disaster? ›

Love Canal resulted in stronger state and federal regulation of pollution and dump sites. It led to the creation of the Superfund for cleanup of sites contaminated by hazardous substances.

How did residents of Love Canal found out that they were living in a toxic waste dump? ›

February, 1978: Chemical contamination found in sump water samples taken in homes abutting the canal. March, 1978: Chemical contamination found in air samples taken in homes abutting the canal.

Who cleaned the Love Canal? ›

NYS, including its agency, the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency (LCARA), and FEMA worked closely together to achieve this massive effort. All but two families within Rings 1 and 2 were evacuated, and, in 1982, their homes were demolished.

What were two diseases that killed the canal workers? ›

The Americans encountered many of the same obstacles as the French in the project's first year as yellow fever and malaria killed hundreds of workers.

How many people died during the construction of the canal? ›

But the project, which employed more than 40,000 laborers, also took immense liberties with human life. Thousands of workers were killed. The official number is 5,609, but many historians think the real toll was several times higher. Hundreds, if not thousands, more were permanently injured.

What disease killed workers building the Panama Canal? ›

Among the work force, the percentage of employees hospitalized due to malaria was 9.6% in December 1905, 5.7% in 1906, 1.8% in 1907, 3.0% in 1908, and 1.6% in 1909. Malaria continued to be a challenge throughout the entire construction program.

Is the Love Canal safe to live in? ›

May: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency conducts air sampling in basements at Love Canal and concludes that toxic vapors it found are a serious health threat. New York State Department of Health reveals its plan for medical studies of Love Canal residents.

What happened to all of the hazardous waste at Love Canal? ›

The canal was turned into a municipal and industrial chemical dumpsite. Landfills can of course be an environmentally acceptable method of hazardous waste disposal, assuming they are properly sited, managed, and regulated.

What kind of disaster is Love Canal considered? ›

Love Canal, neighbourhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y., U.S., that was the site of the worst environmental disaster involving chemical wastes in U.S. history.

What toxins were found in Love Canal? ›

Toxicological Investigation
ChemicalWater & LeachateAir
Trichlorophenol0.1-11.3 µg/lID
Trichlorotoluene34 mg/l0.05-43.7 µg/m3
Toluene250 mg/l0.1-6.2 mg/m3
Dioxin (TCDD)1.4-5.1 ppt
24 more rows

How did the Love Canal affect animals? ›

He found that animals caught near the fence had severely damaged livers, including excess fat, underdeveloped reproductive organs, lowered levels of important body chemicals and unusually low levels of the energy-producing substance called glycogen.


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