In 1953, the city of Niagara Falls, N.Y., paid one dollar to buy the Love Canal, a chemical dump site, from the Hooker Chemical Company. Not long after, homes and a school were built on the site. And 25 years after the purchase, those 20,000 tons of toxic waste began to surface.
Residents suffered birth defects, high rates of miscarriages and other health ailments. President Carter pushed for emergency funds to the area, which, according to an EPA history of the incident, was “the first emergency funds ever to be approved for something other than a ‘natural’ disaster.” The government also paid the homeowners to move.
Normally the federal government rarely got involved in such events, Black said, but Love Canal was different. “Because of the moment, people were ready to be concerned about the environment, and we had a president, Jimmy Carter, who was interested in pushing the line.”
Two years later, Carter signed the law creating the EPA’s Superfund program, which allows the agency to clean up hazardous sites and hold responsible parties accountable for the environmental damage. But some experts say the law is unequal to the task.
“It cleans up places very slowly,” Smith said. “There’s a long, dragged-out process to identify places and have them listed as Superfund sites, and it hasn’t cleaned up very many at all.”