Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Love Canal, New York, 1978

When Hooker made chemicals, and lots of money from those chemicals, it also made chemical waste products and those wastes had to be disposed.  In the 1940s and 1950s the company did not pay a lot of attention to how or where it disposed of the toxic materials.   The company knew the dangers of its wastes and it knew that children were exposed to the wastes in the canal.  It also knew that in the future the wastes would create problems from subsidence and would rise to the surface.  Yet it ignored that knowledge and transferred this dangerous toxic waste site to a school board for construction of a grade school.  Hooker management maximized the benefits to the company by unloading this growing liability and getting an agreement from the school board to protect the company from any lawsuits.  A tax deduction for the donation was a small bonus.  When the toxic chemicals surfaced after the transfer, as expected, and children were burned, the company denied any responsibility, in effect absolving itself.  Only the most fundamental bottom-line self-interest can account for such behavior. 

Companies were created to make products and profit.  It is in their nature to maximize  profits.  As long as no price was paid for careless disposal of waste products, there was little reason for companies to pay attention to those waste practices.  Also there were few environmental laws and no effective enforcement in the post-war period.  Most citizens paid little heed as they had no information about the dangers of these wastes, and they valued the jobs provided by the polluting companies.  The free ride in the 1940s and 1950s eventually ran out as people learned more about the dangerous consequences of the dumping.   

By the late 1970s, Hooker’s wastes got everybody’s attention.  The risks from the wastes continued and intensified — seeping into basements, popping up on the surface — and local authorities had to intercede.  Unfortunately, the first few comments by these officials were dismissive of the concerns of the residents, in effect blaming the problems on the victims themselves.  Then state officials interceded, declaring an emergency.  State resources were clearly insufficient to deal with the risks, and the company was trying to hide in the bushes, so the federal EPA was called in.  Eventually, President Carter interceded and declared emergencies in 1978 and 1980, paving the way for financial support for moving those at risk out of harm’s way.  Even with the commitment of substantial state and federal resources, it was not easy to define the nature or extent of the risk. 

Since it was their lives, and the lives of their loved ones, that were at risk, the ordinary citizens of Love Canal — Peter Bulka, Lois Gibbs, Debbie Cerrillo, and others — decided to take action.  When the toxic chemicals invaded his house and threatened his family, Peter Bulka demanded that the authorities do something.  As a police officer he certainly knew what to do with a person who intruded, but he needed help in dealing with chemicals that were often invisible.  Gibbs and Cerrillo asked questions of everyone, they found experts who would explain the complicated science of risks and cleanup, they formed a group, and they made up their own minds up about the risks.  The citizens used lawsuits and political pressure to remove a threat.  In a sense the citizens assumed the role of private civil enforcers.  Indeed, many American environmental laws provide for citizen suits where private individuals can sue polluters when government agencies do not take action to correct an environmental problem.  This empowerment of ordinary citizens furthers the democratic ideal of citizen participation in government.  It is a civil remedy in contrast to the vigilantism that sometimes occurs. 

  While the citizens organized and struggled with government agencies, they endured dislocations.  Some were moved to temporary housing during the first buy-out, others were temporarily relocated during construction and other activities.  Everybody in the neighborhood was affected.  If they were not relocated, they knew people who were, and they anxiously wondered when their turn would come.  Many were dislocated for weeks at a time. The temporary accommodations were cramped and minimal, and everybody experienced deep anxieties about what would happen next.  No one could tell them, with any accuracy,  how long their uncertainty and fears would last because no one had encountered a situation like this before.  To be uprooted from everything familiar is disturbing.  The Love Canal refugees experienced what the people of Seveso did.  Those who are threatened with dislocation as a result of global warming should remember those at Seveso and Love Canal and at other sites we will soon encounter.


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