The Love Canal Disaster: An Error in Engineering or Public Policy?
A note from the Online Ethics Center: This report was
a second-place winner in a 1996 contest for
student-authored websites on topics in science and
engineering ethics. The opinions and conclusions are the
author's own, not those of the staff of the Online Ethics
Center. In some cases we have corrected factual errors. These
corrections are contained in square brackets and marked with
"[oec]". Photos that originally accompanied the essay have been removed, because we could not identify their source or contents.
The purpose of this page is to inform the reader of the
horrendous mistakes that were made to the "Love Canal" area
of New York and to its residents. The errors made will
continue to effect the local environment for thousands of
years, and has made genetic mutations that will survive for
Near the end of the nineteenth century, after America was
once again a unified country, the entrepreneurial pioneers
looked towards shipping. Many canals, such as the C&O and
Erie Canals, unified American waterways to provide an
efficient shipping system. In 1894, venture capitalist
William Love envisioned a "power canal" (the purpose of which
was to supply cheap hydroelectric power) in the Niagara Falls
region of New York State. Construction began on Love's
vision, but soon a depression hit the nation, and Love was
left with no investors and little more than an empty ditch.
"Love Canal"--as the hole became affectionately known by the
local townspeople-- became a swimming hole in the summer, and
an ice skating rink in the winter. This attitude towards the
canal was to end by the mid-1900's.
In 1942, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation
negotiated a deal with the current title-holders of the land,
the power company, whereby the Corporation was allowed to
dump any wastes into the canal. Hooker finally bought out the
land, and its surroundings, in 1947. To the company's
defense, [the chemicals were dug into impermeable clay soil
[oec], but many tons of hazardous, indeed deadly, chemicals
were then dumped into the Love Canal. Local homeowners were
not apt to complain, for environmental concerns were not at
such a forefront of social consciousnes as they are today,
and also the Hooker Corporation was a large employerin the
area. What was the Love Canal became a huge field upon which
children could play soccer.
And so, the disaster began...
A Chemical Timebomb
In 1950, all of the dumping into the Love Canal was
completed. The Hooker Company went to great lengths to seal
the chemicals forever. The Canal was [dug into impermeable
clay soil [oec] and a [oec] clay soil cap [oec] was placed on
top to prevent any rain water from leaking in. The
precautions made were, in fact, more than sufficient.
About the same time, the district school board was looking
for a place to send all of the baby boomer children entering
school. Eyeing the large field, the board approached the
Hooker Plastics and Chemical Corporation. Hooker was eager to
get rid of the virtual wasteland, but did not want to give
the risk to the public. The company went so far as to make
test digs into the ground to prove the existence of the
chemicals to the government executives. Despite the warnings,
however, the school board prepared eminent domain cases.
Reluctantly, the company gave the land over nearly for free,
and in return was loosened of all liability.
What followed was series of follies by the local
government. First, dirt was removed from above the dump to
provide for the building of a school.
Some of the cement cap was also removed, allowing rain to
seep in. The school became the first in the area without a
basement, for obvious reasons. Later, the city constructed a
sewer line that penetrated a few of the cement walls.
Surrounding the lines was permeable gravel. In 1960,
a storm drain was put in place that pierced the wall of the
covering. The punctures allowed any and all chemicals to be
able to swept away with the rain water into surrounding
lakes, rivers, and wells. As the area's population density
increased, pressure was put upon the city government to sell
the land for development, which is exactly what happened in
the later 1960's.
Finally, the attention of many people becamethe focus the
ever growing problem of Love Canal.
Besides breathing toxic fumes, people were exposed to
actual pools of chemicals bubbling up to the surface. Slowly,
as the mass media began to draw attention toward the
ever-growing problem, the U. S. government got involved.
Slowly, homes were evacuated. By 1980, everyone was allowed
A Corporate, Governmental, and Fatal Error
In all, 20,000 tons of 248 assorted chemicals were buried
at Love Canal, including: the pesticide hexachlorocyclohexane
(known as Lindane), chlorobenzenes, chlorinated hydrocarbons,
benzene, chloroform, trichloroethylene, methylene chloride,
benzene hexachloride, phosphorous rocks, polychlorinated
biphenyls, and 1, 3, 7, 8- tetrachlorodibenzo- para-dioxin
(or just dioxin). There was an estimated 130 pounds of dioxin
contained at the Love Canal dumpsite; it has been estimated
that three ounces can kill in excess of one million people.
(3) With that degree of chemical contamination, it
is easy to blame the Hooker Chemical Company, as the media
and public did, but were they at fault?
The Hooker Company took great precautions, especially when
compared to the standards of the day, in [digging the
chemicals into impermeable clay soil [oec]]. They did "sell"
the land to the government, when they had to expect the land
would be developed, but they were nearly forced to under the
threat of [eminent [oec]] domain cases. Even after the land
was sold, Hooker continued to try to stop development of the
land. It was the local government who went against all
repeated warnings and tried to profit off of the contaminated
The government knew of the chemicals, but pierced the clay
container more than a few times for the sake of fill dirt,
and to put sewer lines in place. Then, by selling the land
for development , they virtually asked for attention to be
brought to the site. It was the government's shoddy handling
of the waste land, and their concern for money over their
constituents, that caused the ultimate Love Canal
How Much Did (Does) the Love Canal Cost Us?
The cost of the Love Canal waste dump is not yet well
documented. Many of the long-term health effects due to
exposure to the chemicals are not yet known. Some short-term
effects have started to show up, though. In one case, a
woman's genes mutated so that all of her children, and her
children's children, and so on, will be permanently blind. In
another case, two brothers came into direct skin contact with
some chemicals that had bubbled to the ground surface. One
has chronic ear problems, the other respiratory problems.
Other known problems are miscarriages, liver abnormalities,
and rectal bleeding. 3 In at least one case, a
health accident occurred in [which a child [oec]] collected
some [pieces of [oec]] phosphorus lying on the ground, and
put them in his pocket. There, they ignited and burnt much of
Monetarily speaking, the cost of the evacuation of the
Love Canal, and the cleanup of that site specifically, is
insignificant [when compared with (oec)] the overall cost of
the disaster. The real cost [lies in the cost(oec)] of the
national toxic waste cleanup fund, or Superfund. This fund,
established in 1980 and greatly increased in 1986, was the
United States government's response to the cause celebre that
the Love Canal became. Love Canal was, by comparison, a
smaller site than many others, but it received the most media
Superfund was supposed to clean up all of America's toxic
waste dumps. The fund was established through a tax on oil
producers and chemical manufacturers. The Superfund has now
spent over ten billion dollars, but has accomplished little.
"'All sides agree that the Superfund program for cleaning up
hazardous wastes sites is not working as intended and that
progress on permanent cleanups has been painfully slow,'
former Environmental Protection Agency administrator Russell
Train wrote earlier this year." 4 The most famous
toxic waste site in America s history has cost us money,
life, and land.
Will It Ever Be Clean? And, How Clean is Clean?
They say that out of all bad things, must come some good.
If any good came out of the Love Canal, it is that America
has wakened up to its growing toxic waste problem. Superfund
is currently ineffective, but with the growing
environmentalism of the 1990's, perhaps a real solution might
come. The Love Canal Toxic Waste Dump Site has opened our
eyes to America's need to find a real, permanent
The Love Canal area today is starting to be re-inhabited.
The chemicals there will not decompose for approximately
20,000 years, the genetic mutations will survive
indefinitely, the legend and stigma will live on in history
books. Who knows how long the lesson will be remembered?
- Andleman, J.B. and Underhill, D.W., editors. Health
Effects from Hazardous Waste Sites.Lewis Publishers, Inc.,
- Levine, A.G., Love Canal: Science, Politics and People.
Lexington Books, 1982. [oec]
- Nader, Ralph II; Brownstein, Ronald III; Richard, John,
ed. Who's Poisoning America. Sierra Club Books, San
- Stroup, Richard L. and Shaw, Jane S."The Free Market
and the Environment," The Public Interest. Fall 1989, pp.
- Some additional documentation for these conclusions can be found
in Eric Zuesse's 1981 article in Reason magazine.
Cite this page:
"The Love Canal Disaster: An Error in Engineering or Public Policy?"
Online Ethics Center for Engineering
National Academy of Engineering
Accessed: Friday, December 13, 2013