Reviewed in this essay: Penelope Ploughman’s Love Canal (Arcadia, 2013)
“Ninety-ninth Street looks serene in these summer 1978 photographs,” writes Penelope Ploughman in Love Canal (Arcadia Publishing, 2013). “Children are walking on the sidewalk, the trees are full, lawns are mown, American flags are flying and flowers are in bloom.” It’s an ominous description of the neighbourhood later known as Love Canal, a suburb of Niagara Falls, NY.
Dreamt up by nineteenth-century entrepreneur William Love, Love Canal was to act as a passage between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, bypassing Niagara Falls. In a rather inspired marketing campaign, Mr. Love planned to attract business and workers by offering free electricity, which would be generated along the canal. Added to that, he planned a 30,000-acre utopian-like community along the shores of Lake Ontario, appropriately named Model City.
Presented with archived photos and maps, Ploughman documents Love Canal throughout its hundred-plus years. There was William Love’s turn-of-the-century groundbreaking, a prosperous working-class suburb from the fifties until its demise in the early eighties, and finally the crumbling driveways and sidewalks, empty property lots, and a massive fenced-in field where 20,000 tons of chemicals are still buried today.
Ploughman explains that Mr. Love’s dream ended in part due to the economic panic of 1893, but mostly due to Nikola Tesla’s successful introduction of alternating current generators with Westinghouse. The canal—by that time about 3,000 feet long—was left unfinished and stayed that way for the next 40 years.
In the 1940s, Hooker Electrochemical Company, one of the largest chemical companies at the time, purchased the abandoned canal to use it as a dumpsite. For over a decade, Hooker disposed of an assortment of chemicals some of which contained carcinogens like dioxin. When the canal was full, Hooker sealed it and sold it to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for one dollar.
The rest of the story, as Ploughman documents, is full of heartbreak and deception. After the school board built Ninety-Ninth Street School on top of the landfill, children began to show signs of illness. For residents living only feet from the site there was an abnormally high rate of birth defects, including miscarriages, abnormal liver functions, and other long-term health ailments, which may still be occurring.
Ploughman states that during the seventies Love Canal residents complained of black sludge seeping through their basement walls, a lingering chemical odour throughout the neighbourhood, and some even claimed to see a green mist hovering above manholes. Children injured themselves playing with “fire rocks,” which were clay-covered pieces of phosphorous, while family pets often had burns and skin problems. In the winter of 1977, a large amount of snowmelt created a “bathtub effect,” which forced contaminated groundwater and waste to the surface.
Frustrated and tired of being left in the dark, Love Canal residents, led by homeowner Lois Gibbs, formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA)—a grassroots environmental campaign. Their protests and media coverage, including on the front page of the New York Times, was the driving force behind the Carter Administration declaring a federal emergency to “save lives, protect property, and avert or lessen the threat of disaster.” For some, the persistent calls for action by the LCHA are seen as the early stages of the environmental movement in America, which may be the Love Canal’s best result.
Ploughman captures the history of the Love Canal with succinct and beautiful writing. In documenting how cost-cutting big business betrayed working-class people, a common tale in North America, she also demonstrates how loud a small voice can be.