The World’s Worst Man Made Accidents: Love Canal

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So far, the entries in our “World’s Worst Man Made Accidents” blog series have focused on distant locations: Bhopal in India, and the Chernobyl site in Ukraine.  But when a tragedy hits physically close to home, it’s a stark reminder that man made catastrophes can arise anywhere — even in idyllic, small-town U.S.A.  In this entry, we’re shifting continents to focus on New York’s notorious Love Canal chemical spill.

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Hooker Chemical Company Warns School Board Buyers of Dump Site’s Toxic Past

Love Canal refers to a neighborhood in the famous city of Niagara Falls.  It also refers to one of the most infamous — and most heavily litigated — industrial accidents in the history of the United States.

In 1953, what was then known as Hooker Chemical Company sold a patch of land to Niagara Falls School Board for the hefty price of one dollar.  While the purchase cost was laughably low, the cost to human health and environmental safety would turn out to be incredibly high — and anything but laughable.

When the company sold the land, the paperwork specifically laid out the area’s history as a chemical graveyard.  Hooker Chemical had been dumping toxic waste into the earth by the ton since 1942, and even advised the Board its sour grounds would not be safe for human occupation. But Niagara was growing rapidly at that time, and a greater supply of children meant a greater demand for schools.

Deterred neither by the dump site’s past nor the owner’s hesitance to sell, the Board went ahead with the transaction — which included a clause limiting Hooker Chemical’s liability for any potential problems down the road.

And there would be problems.

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“Children Returned From Play with Burns on Their Hands and Faces”

Over the remainder of the decade, two new schools were constructed: the 99th Street School, and the 93rd Street School.  Like grotesque fossils, excavation work prior to building uncovered a stockpile of drums filled with chemical waste.  After architects raised concerns, the Board decided it would be a sufficient safety measure to shift construction.  Unfortunately, the move was by fewer than 100 feet.

Before long, forces of nature began to take their toll on the shallowly buried waste.  By the late 1950s, the weak clay lid on the canal — supposedly a reliable shield between the open environment and the toxic cocktail within — started to break apart.  Then, in 1962, Love Canal experienced a particularly brutal onslaught of rain.  The canal overflowed, and suspiciously colored chemical puddles started to pool around and inside of residential property.

By the 1970s, the situation had deteriorated even further.  Local residents began to notice unusually high rates of inexplicable illness, compounded by a suspicious wave of birth defects and miscarriages.  The Environmental Protection Agency called Love Canal’s miscarriage numbers “disturbingly high,” and one EPA report stated that local children “returned from play with burns on their hands and faces.”

President Carter Declares Love Canal a Federal Emergency

Niagara Falls Mayor Brian O’Laughlin is remembered today for insisting that Love Canal was normal and safe.  But by the late 1970s, it was impossible to ignore the crisis any longer.

By the time the School Board purchased the dumping grounds in 1953, the land was already permeated with 21,000 tons of poisonous industrial byproduct.  The noxious chemical blend included cancer-causing substances like dioxin and benzene, and the local vegetation was experiencing visible mass die-offs.

In August of 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a federal emergency, sealing the troubled neighborhood’s place in history — and its tomb.  Over 800 families were relocated, and plans were drafted to cover Love Canal for good.

In 1979, blood tests revealed that approximately one third of the town had deformed chromosomes.  To put that into perspective, the normal incidence rate is around 1% — a thirtieth of what presented in the residents of Love Canal.  Other studies confirmed abnormally high rates of problems with skin, growth, eyes, learning abilities, and other health issues.

But even with “the cat out of the bag” at last, the Love Canal story was far from over.  In the aftermath of the disaster, a storm of new rules and regulations were developed — including liability laws that are still relevant today.

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Love Canal Catalyst for Liability Reform, Lawsuits Continue Today

Hooker Chemical Company warned the Niagara Falls School Board in no uncertain terms that it was buying rotten land.  Anticipating problems down the line, Hooker Chemical preemptively guarded itself — or so the company thought — by including a limited liability clause.  The clause stated:

“…the grantee [the Board] assumes all risk and liability incident to the use thereof [the land].  It is therefore understood and agreed that… no claim, suit, action or demand of any nature whatsoever shall ever be made by the grantee… against the grantor… for injury to a person or persons, including death… or loss of or damage to property caused by… the presence of said industrial wastes.”

However, the Love Canal catastrophe prompted Congress to pass the Superfund Act.  The Superfund Act allows for “retroactive liability,” meaning Hooker Chemical — called Occidental Petroleum by then — was in fact held liable.  Federal District Judge John Curtin made a ruling that Occidental was negligent for permitting the sale in the first place, and the EPA then filed a lawsuit against Occidental. The company paid out $129 million, and settled with numerous residents out of court.

Today, a new wave of Love Canal residents — attracted, if nervously, by cheap property and reassuring words — are suing Occidental again.  The site was supposedly contained and cleaned after the original disaster, but second-wave locals no longer believe that.

According to resident Dan Reynolds, “We’re stuck here.  We want to get out.”

Reynolds says he has experienced a string of rashes.  He says his wife Teresa has miscarried twice.

EPA spokesman Mike Basile says, “The canal has not leaked.  The monitoring and containment system is as effective today as when first installed.”

The damages sought by the new suits haven’t been made public, but attorneys have confirmed that over 1,000 claims could be on the horizon.

Property owners are responsible for keeping their land safe for residents, visitors, and customers. If you or someone you love was hurt by a hazardous property, you may be able to receive compensation for your losses.  To schedule a free and private legal consultation with an experienced premises liability lawyer, call the law offices of The Reiff Law Firm at (215) 246-9000, or contact us online today.

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