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Love Canal

Pollution and the Slippery Meaning of 'Clean' 

ANTHONY DePALMA / NY Times 28mar04

THEN the outrage over Love Canal was at its height, more than 20 years ago, hundreds of families had to be evacuated from their homes after 21,000 tons of chemicals buried beneath them started oozing into their basements and contaminating their groundwater.

Today, families are once again settled in the same neighborhood in upstate New York, now rechristened Black Creek Village. They live in neat, new ranch houses and federal officials recently announced that they now consider this notorious symbol of industrial pollution clean.

But what does clean mean when the pollutants that rendered Love Canal dangerous to humans remain exactly where they were? In fact, there is no accepted standard, and clean, in practical terms, often means still polluted—but in a different and less dangerous way.

The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has deleted 278 sites from the 1,200 on the Superfund national priorities list (the fund itself was created partly in reaction to Love Canal). Each has been defined as clean in a different way, and with few exceptions the offending pollutants were never removed.

What makes the notion of clean so slippery is the relative newness of the idea of decontaminating industrial sites and the unpalatable truth that treating pollution, even rendering it harmless, almost never means getting rid of it. The sin, once committed, cannot be entirely undone, and this is something no one really wants to hear.

Politicians "can't politically make the jump to telling the public that they have to accept a certain amount of contamination," said Michael B. Moore, an environmental consultant from Vermont who is chairman of the Superfund task force of the National Ground Water Association, a professional group with a special interest in cleaning up contaminated sites.

When federal officials put Love Canal on the Superfund list, some residents thought they knew what clean meant.

In 1978 Lois Marie Gibbs discovered that her child attended a school built on top of a toxic-chemical dump. 

Lois Marie Gibbs

Photo Katie Schneider

To learn more about dioxin, read "Dying From Dioxin" by Lois Gibbs see review below.


"We were led to believe that they were going to go in with bulldozers, take 20,000 tons of waste out of Love Canal and clean up the neighborhood so we could live there," said Lois Marie Gibbs, whose home had to be demolished because the ground beneath it dripped with chemicals.

Never having undertaken a project like Love Canal, federal officials had no idea how much contamination was buried there until they started testing the soil. They quickly realized that the volume of hazardous waste was enormous, and that removing the rusting and dented chemical drums was riskier than leaving them there.

Then, in a pattern followed at many other sites, the government and the Hooker Chemical Company (now the Occidental Chemical Corporation), capped the chemical swamp with a thick layer of clay, installed pumps and drains to control runoff and ripped up miles of contaminated sewer pipe. The chemicals themselves were left in the ground, surrounded by a cyclone fence.

Jane M. Kenny, the E.P.A. regional administrator, insisted that no standards were lowered in removing Love Canal from the Superfund list. Even though the chemicals haven't been removed, she said, the $400 million cleanup has contained the pollution and reduced the health risks, which is the cleanup standard the agency aims for.

"I know that saying clean makes people crazy," she said, "but in terms of Love Canal, the area is now protective of the environment, the site is contained and we believe that we have eliminated the exposure."

The chasm between the government's definition of clean and community expectations hasn't narrowed in 20 years.

"If she says Love Canal's cleaned up, that's just a blatant lie," said Ms. Gibbs, now executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, which works with communities facing environmental problems."

When Congress established the Superfund in 1980, it deliberately refrained from setting a single standard, insisting only that the E.P.A. protect health and the environment in a cost-effective way.

The gold standard was a level of cleanliness where there was only a one in a million chance that there would be more cancer in the area than normal. But that was not a practical goal at many cleanup sites, including Love Canal, where the level of risk of additional cancers is now reckoned at one in 10,000.

The E.P.A. will not certify a site as clean in which the risk of additional cancers exceeds one in 10,000.

The term brownfields is another way of defining clean and saying the politically unspeakable—that a certain amount of contamination will always be with us. Brownfields are former industrial sites that are cleaned just enough so the remaining risk is compatible with the way the land will be reused. Owners get to define clean one way if they intend to build, say, a parking lot, and another if they plan to build homes.

It is yet another way of saying clean, and still polluted.

source: http://query.nytimes.com/mem/tnt.html?tntget=2004/03/28/weekinreview/28tony.html&tntemail0=&pagewanted=print&position= 29mar04

Lois Marie Gibbs and the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste 

Dying From Dioxin, A Citizen's Guide to Reclaiming Our Health 

Reviewed by Mark Guy, Gateway Green Alliance / Synthesis/Regeneration 9 (Winter 1996)

Dying From Dioxin, A Citizen's Guide to Reclaiming Our Health by Lois Marie Gibbs and the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste South End Press, Boston, Mass., 1995. 361 pp. Paper, $20.00.

Industry's love of chlorine began near the turn of the century, when the waste product from the electrolysis of salt, chlorine, was handed over to the German and American organic chemical companies. Dow was a pioneer in this regard. Chlorine met phenol in the twenties, to give rise to biocides that are still with us, and in us, and in the foods we eat. It is now possible to detect dioxin in all mammalian species, not to mention all other media of the planet such as soil, water, sediment and polar ice caps.

Lois Gibbs story is a legacy of chlorine chemistry:

"In 1978, my neighbors and I discovered that our neighborhood in Love Canal, New York, had been built next to 21,800 tons of buried toxic chemicals. When we bought our homes, none of us knew that Hooker Chemical Corporation, a division of Occidental Petroleum, had dumped 200 tons of a toxic, dioxin-laden chemical called trichlorophenol and 21,600 tons of various other chemicals into Love Canal. We just knew we were getting sick. We knew there were too many miscarriages, too many birth defects, too many central nervous system problems, too many urinary tract disorders, and too much asthma and other respiratory problems among us." The best defense against corporate & government power is knowledge. Ms. Gibbs and the Citizen's Clearinghouse have assembled an enormous amount of science and strategy to make this book a necessary reference item on every activists desk. Part I of Dying From Dioxin covers the basics of dioxin science and politics. Part II gives you the tools to organize and fight against dioxin sources in your back yard.

Of the two, Ms. Gibbs stresses that strategy is more important than science. The science section is a "plain English" version of the Draft Dioxin Reassessment released by the EPA in late 1994. The fight against the tragic poisoning of those in her neighborhood that gave rise to the Clearinghouse—and the strategy portion—is Ms. Gibbs lasting achievement in the long struggle from then to now.

There are two parts to the dioxin story: the science of how people are being poisoned, and the politics of why.

We need to save ourselves by saving each other...[To do this,], every community needs to have an active and committed group of residents working to shut down local dioxin sources...We have to explore how people became powerless as the corporations became powerful. If you are compelled to resist the injustice of a society and a political and economic system that allows, fosters, nurtures, and coddles the corporate tyrants that are poisoning us all, then this book gives you the tools to do so. Fighting back is an act of courage, and is not a commitment that should be chosen lightly.

source: http://www.greens.org/s-r/09/09-27.html 29mar04

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