Scars linger in Love Canal - and former residents


Published: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 10:32 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, August 1, 2008 at 10:32 p.m.

NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. -- Several former residents reminisced about their naive youth as they revisited the deserted streets of the Love Canal neighborhood Friday, 30 years after a poison sludge devastated families with miscarriages and cancers and gave rise to the federal Superfund program.

The state-formed Love Canal Revitalization Agency, armed with the task of revitalizing the toxic neighborhood, met for a final time Friday, the anniversary of when New York state declared an emergency there. The agency was officially dissolved five years ago by the Legislature, but the crisis has never really ended for those who lived through it.

"Don't make me cry," said Debbie Curry, who did just that as she stood before a stretch of field where a relative's home once stood. "My niece lived here. She died of cancer at 32."

Later this year, the state Department of Health is expected to close the book on another lingering project, a long-term study meant to evaluate the birth defects, cancer rates and deaths among residents exposed to the 21,800 tons of chemical waste dumped by Hooker Chemical Co. at Love Canal from about 1942 to 1953 and discovered seeping into basements and yards in the 1970s.

The study's authors, in preliminary findings, have reported high rates of birth defects and bladder and kidney cancers among former residents, while cautioning that the findings were based on small numbers that could have skewed results.

Activist Lois Gibbs, who spearheaded the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which sounded the public alarm in 1978, issued her own report Friday, calling the Health Department's upcoming report the "final whitewash."

Gibbs said the department evaluated only a small number of health problems those tracked by state databases while excluding many others. The "passive data collection" from cancer, mortality and birth defects registries required no direct participation from the roughly 6,000 former residents included in the study.

"The people who lived through Love Canal need to know what their risks are and what they might expect for their children," said Gibbs, who went on to establish the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a citizens' activist organization.

The disaster led to Superfund, a federal program that aids cleanup of toxic sites that could endanger the public.

Love Canal today is really two areas. There is the capped dump site behind a chain-link fence, where vacant land once held entire streets of houses that had to be razed. Just across the street to the north is a reborn neighborhood called Black Creek Village, full of homes that were rehabilitated and sold.

State health officials said the agency's findings are undergoing an extensive review by outside experts before being released.

"The state Health Department is proud of the work we have done on Love Canal over the years," a statement by the department said.

"We have included experts on the study's advisory committee and community consultants who were former Love Canal residents. We have issued newsletters on our progress, met numerous times in open meetings and have strived to be straightforward and open," the statement said.

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