Before reading Love Canal: and the Birth of the Environmental Health Movement, by Lois Marie Gibbs, I knew little about Love Canal except that it had something to do with a toxic waste dump.
I came across the book last March when I was searching for books written by or about women environmentalists in honor of Women’s History Month. The 3rd edition, published in 2011, includes the original text from 1982 and an updated introduction and afterword.
Lois Gibbs’ personal story interested me as much as learning about Love Canal itself. I wanted to know how she evolved from being a stay-at-home mom to an activist. Readers of Love Canal will experience Love Canal through Gibbs’ eyes, those of a mother, concerned citizen, and owner of a home a few streets away from a toxic waste dump.
The Love Canal neighborhood of Niagara Falls, NY got its name from a canal dug by William T. Love. The partially dug canal was used as a chemical waste dump by Hooker Chemical Corporation. Later the canal was filled in, sold, and the Love Canal neighborhood built on and around it.
Gibbs describes how in 1978 she became aware her son was attending an elementary school built on a toxic waste dump. Initially, her goal was just to move her son to another school. As she talked with people in the neighborhood she heard tales of sick family members and contaminated backyards. She began to grasp the magnitude of the problem and realized she would need to take action.
Family members, friends, and neighbors helped Gibbs found the Love Canal Homeowners Association as a means to gain attention and help from local, state, and federal government agencies. Although it was not her intention, Gibbs became the face and voice of the organization. Through trial and error, she learned how to engage the media and keep Love Canal in the news.
The Love Canal Homeowners Association received little help and virtually no cooperation from numerous government agencies and was often given the run around by local and national politicians. They had no choice but to continue the struggle, their very lives and those of their families depended on it. After a 2-year battle, the government finally agreed to relocate hundreds of families and contain the toxic waste site.
In the afterword, Gibbs reveals the shocking current state of affairs. Love Canal was never actually cleaned up; a 20-acre cap covers the toxic landfill. When she found out plans were underway to build new homes in part of the old neighborhood, she fought again. Unfortunately, new people did move into the supposedly “habitable” area of Love Canal.
It was not all in vain. In addition to helping the original Love Canal residents, the actions taken by Gibbs and the Love Canal Homeowners Association brought toxic waste dump sites into the public view and led to Congress passing the Superfund Act of 1980 which provides funding to clean up toxic waste sites. Gibbs went on to found the Center for Health, Environment & Justice.
The Bottom Line
Once I started reading Love Canal, I could not put it down. From the beginning, I felt as if I was with Lois as she knocked on the first door in her neighborhood, held meetings at her dining room table, kept going after every setback, and finally achieved the goal of relocation for the residents of Love Canal.
Gibbs is an inspiration and her personal journey shows that you don’t know what you can do and until you are called to do it. Today, she is the Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice and works with environmental health grassroots organizations around the world.
I recommend Love Canal to anyone interested in the environment, health, social justice, or activism, and it should be required reading for every bureaucrat and politician, to remind them of who they are paid to protect and serve.
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