In the 1970s, Love Canal, an otherwise peaceful neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, was afflicted by environmental oddities resembling Biblical plagues. Thick, viscous scum roiled on the surface of local streams. Rocks in the local playground would occasionally burst into flames. A noxious stench invaded basements and kitchens, seeped into clothes, and burned eyes and noses.
Initially events like these were seen as incidental or unimportant, or simply accepted as just a part of life in Love Canal. But eventually, driven by an increasing number of health concerns, locals took action. In his new book Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe, Keith O’Brien offers a panoramic perspective of the galvanizing incident that resulted in the passage of the 1980 Superfund Act.
The problems in Love Canal did not stem from the vengeance of an angry God, but rather the irresponsible waste disposal of Hooker Chemical, a company located along the river in Niagara Falls. During the 1940s, Hooker Chemical put its tons of chemical waste into 55-gallon drums and buried them in a nearby abandoned canal. The company later agreed to sell their landfill to the local school district for just a dollar, on one condition: Hooker Chemical would not be held responsible for any harm their buried chemicals might cause.
Future studies would reveal that the toxic sea swirling under the new school’s playground — and its surrounding neighborhood for blocks and blocks around — contained more than 200 chemicals, some of which could not even be identified. Those that could be included thionyl chloride, a key ingredient in the poisonous mustard gas used in WWI, and dioxin, the deadly, disfiguring compound used in Agent Orange. Over the next three decades, the chemicals escaped their barrels, seeping into the ground and, eventually, into the bodies of Love Canal residents. When the resulting health problems — rashes, asthma, miscarriages, birth defects, kidney problems — hit a critical mass and rumors and reports grew about their true source, Love Canal residents began to speak out and demand that someone do something to help them.
O’Brien’s voluminous sources for this sprawling story include contemporary news reports, primary sources, documents obtained via FOIA requests, and extensive personal interviews. His narrative style is similarly thorough, pivoting with prismatic frequency among the perspectives of the many people involved in this complex story: Bonnie Casper, a young congressional aide who tirelessly brought the Love Canal problem to the attention of her boss, New York Congressman Bob LaFalse. Beverly Paigen, scientist and whistleblower, who advocated for scientific transparency about the Love Canal situation even at the expense of her career. Bob Carey, then-Governor of New York, who at first tried to placate Love Canal residents and then tried even harder to ignore them. Catholic Sister Joan Malone, who went against her bishop’s recommendation and demanded accountability from Hooker Chemical to their faces at their own board meeting. Luella Kenney, who became involved in the protests after the Love Canal disaster did irreparable damage to her family.
And Lois Gibbs, a 27-year-old mother of two whose unlikely rise to national prominence as the face of Love Canal activism is among the most satisfying elements of O’Brien’s narrative. Gibbs’s involvement began when her five-year-old son Michael had a seizure. With no history of epilepsy or other contributing health problems in her family, Gibbs quickly linked the event to the growing reports of the chemicals surfacing from beneath Michael’s school. She resolved to walk house to house, her children in tow, to circulate a petition to shut the school down.
Initially struggling to work up the nerve to even knock on her neighbors’ doors, Gibbs quickly learned how to raise hell. She founded and became leader of the Love Canal Homeowners Association and worked tirelessly to get Love Canal residents the help they needed. Her oeuvre as an activist included national interviews, Senate testimonials, kidnapping FBI agents, and constant attendance at protests. O’Brien captures Gibbs’s typical approach in his description of a meeting in which the Niagara County legislature denied aid to those affected by the disaster:
“When [the] local legislators voted 16-15 not to join the state’s long-delayed efforts to buy homes in the neighborhood, Gibbs commandeered a folding chair, stood up on it, and shouted at the legislators for minutes.
“Twice, sheriff’s deputies took Gibbs by the arms and threw her out of the chamber, and twice she marched right back in to shout some more.”
While it’s easy to root for Lois Gibbs and the other heroes of this story, it’s more difficult to connect with them as you would a character in a novel. O’Brien offers occasional glimpses into their personal lives, but his focus is less on developing an emotional landscape for his “characters” than it is on tracking their motivations and interests. This approach underscores the fundamental issues that arose from the Love Canal disaster: Who was responsible for this, and perhaps even more importantly, who would pay? Who would pay to extract the poison from the ground and help local families with toxic chemicals permeating their homes and bodies? The local school board? Hooker Chemical? The New York State Board of Health? The state government? The EPA? The federal government? O’Brien adroitly maps the perspectives and stratagems of all interested parties.
The events of Love Canal occurred during the crescendo of the ‘70s and resulted in the historic Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA). Nevertheless, O’Brien’s narrative seems oddly timeless. This is in part due to his spare, clean prose and minimal references to groovy cultural touchstones. But it also may be because this story’s themes are timeless: environmental exploitation, corporate greed and irresponsibility, and the power of grassroots activism to create change. That Paradise Falls can be so easily mapped on to our present is both disappointing and inspiring.
Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe
By Keith O’Brien
Published April 12, 2022
Dana Dunham is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.