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Students Find Nothing to Love at Love Canal

Environmental studies class tours industrial pollution site near Niagara Falls

By Julie Houde ES '10

Students from the ESF Department of Environmental Studies took a field trip this spring to the Niagara Gazette, Love Canal, and Niagara Falls to learn about journalism and environmental issues. Patrick Lawler, associate professor, and Kristopher Dodson, instructor, took students on the field trip as part of their environmental journalism and environmental communication workshop class.

The Love Canal area, a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, N.Y. , takes its name from William T. Love, who tried to build a canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers to generate cheap power to sustain a community at the beginning of the 20th century. The project was never completed, however, and the partially constructed canal was used as a dumpsite by a number of parties, in particular, Hooker Chemical Company.

Hooker eventually sold the land to the city for a dollar and homes and a school were built there in the 1950s. A layer of dirt that capped the site concealed the chemicals at the time, but by the 1970s an array of compounds, including several suspected carcinogens, were percolating out of the ground and flowing into people's homes. Children suffered burns while playing outside and state health officials began to investigate the number of miscarriages and birth defects that occurred in the area.

The EPA declared the site hazardous and removed more than 200 families. One of the first local news groups to break this story was the Niagara Gazette.

At the Niagara Gazette office, the students met the publisher and saw the inner workings of the newsroom; the advertising, graphics and business departments; and an old printing press.

The Niagara Gazette brought in John Hanchette, a Pulitzer Prize winner and editor, who reported on Love Canal in 1978. Hanchette described the events that led to the interviews and eventual breaking of this story, which garnered national headlines.

Hanchette's advice to the students was, "Go out and do your own investigations."

He said he collected samples of black slop in people's homes for testing to learn more about what was happening in the neighborhood. Hanchette said being a good reporter means doing the fieldwork to support a stronger story that people want to read.

The Love Canal area is now known as Black Creek Village. Homes have been built again because the site is deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and is "no more polluted then any other place in Niagara," said Joann Hale, a former Love Canal resident who was one of the first evacuated and a member of the Love Canal Home Owner Association.

Hale gave the students a bus tour of the Hooker Chemical Company site and stopped in front of the site of her former home. The Love Canal site is fenced off but shows no other indication that the area is hazardous.

Love Canal is divided into two sections: the habitable zone and the uninhabitable zone. Entering the uninhabitable zone was eerie for the students because they saw where homes used to stand, complete with driveways, sidewalks and fire hydrants.

Across the street was the habitable zone, now occupied by residents.

Hale told the students about her experience, the medical problems her family faces, and the problems the new families in the area may face. "I grew vegetables because I thought I was being a good parent. I have guilt because I essentially spoon fed poison to my children," Hale said.

Ryan Marcy a senior environmental studies major, said, "I've learned about [Love Canal], but seeing it and hearing first-hand accounts from reporters and Joann drove it home."

Marcy said the trip related to his coursework because "policy has separated us from personal action and should be part of the process. This shouldn't have happened because people put their trust into the government."

Lawler and Dodson both wanted the students to realize the impact of journalism and the process it takes to be a journalist and how to advocate for an issue in their community.