Love Canal, NY: Toxic Town


By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL


Love canal is an example of a toxic town (see dictionary entry on toxic town) and a toxic ghost town. Love Canal is located on the south side of Niagara Falls, NY on the Niagara River. The site is one of the most well-known toxic waste sites, and much has been written about the Love Canal story.

The story of Love Canal begins in the 1890s when entrepreneur William T. Love planned to build a model city based around a canal connecting the lower and upper portions of the Niagara River and by-passing Niagara Falls. Shortly after the project began, the financial panic of 1893 caused the project to shut down. Only about 1 mile of the canal had been completed when the project was abandoned.

In the early 1940s, Hooker Chemical received permission to use the canal as a chemical waste site, and later bought the site (1947) where it stored 55 gallon drums of chemical waste. The City of Niagara Falls and the military also used the site as a dump which operated until 1953 and contained an estimated 21,000 tons toxic chemicals along with other waste. In 1953, the site was sold to the Niagara Falls School District for $1. The sale agreement included notice of the toxic contents of the canal site. Over the next several years, however, the School district built schools on the site, and by the late 1950 the City of Niagara constructed low-income and mixed housing around the location.

During construction of the school sites, the clay retaining wall around the canal was opened in several locations to allow for sewer construction. This damaged the structural integrity of the clay retaining wall and allowed toxic waste to seep from the area.

By the mid-1970s, area residents were complaining of health problems, and news stories that eventually included national news coverage of the site emerged. One of the well-known works to emerge from these investigations was Michael Brown’s expose in Atlantic Monthly, and his book, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of American by Toxic Chemicals. (For further details and images of the site see, Love Canal Images 1; see also Love Canal Images 2). During the long public health conflict that emerged from resident’s efforts to have their complaints recognized and addressed, Lois Gibbs, who was to become an extremely important figure in the community environmental health movement and was a resident of Love Canal, emerged as a leader of the Love Canal resident group.

By the late 1970s, the US EPA investigated the site and found health concerns such high rates of miscarriages and birth defects (for EPA’s site description see, site description ). In 1978, President Jimmy Carter announced a federal health emergency for the site, and disaster relief funds were committed to assessing and remediating the site. New York’s Governor allocated funds for the relocation of the residents of Love Canal.

Further Reading

In this dictionary see:”Toxic Towns” entry


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