Professionalism/Love Canal, New York

Background edit

The City of Niagara Falls, New York was ideally situated for industry in the late nineteenth century. William T. Love saw this opportunity and obtained permission to build a canal diverting water from the cataracts of Niagara Falls. This canal would provide DC power to the surrounding area. However, before Love could finish building the canal, the economic depression of the 1890s hit upstate New York. Then, widespread use of AC power rendered his canal and its subsequent industrial use obsolete. In the 1920s, Love Canal was first used as a chemical landfill by local industry and the City of Niagara Falls.[1] New York State's Health Commissioner found that between the 1940s and the Korean War, the US Army used Love Canal as a chemical waste site as well. [2] In 1942, Hooker Chemical Company purchased Love Canal to use as a chemical waste site. Hooker Chemical owned this land for eleven years before selling it to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953.

1953 Purchase edit

In the early 1950s, Niagara Falls began to feel the effects of the post-war baby boom. In order to accommodate the city's rapidly growing population, the Niagara Falls School Board decided to build a series of new schools. In 1951, the school board drew up a map showing a school planned right over the canal [3]. In 1952, the school board first approached Hooker Chemical with the intention of purchasing land around Love Canal. Hooker Chemical claims that it refused the board’s initial offer because the company’s executives believed it would not be safe to build upon the land. The company then sent representatives to escort school board members to the site for an inspection. Inspectors drilled eight holes, two of which revealed chemicals four feet below the surface[4] . The school board’s attorney, Ralph Boniello, released a statement saying that he believed that if the Hooker Chemical sold the land to the school board, the school board would assume all responsibility and liability for any injury or damage that occurred as a result of the waste on the site. [5]

In 1953, Hooker Chemical agreed to sell Love Canal to the Niagara Falls school board. Citing the risk associated with owning the land, Hooker Chemical sold the canal and its surrounding property for one dollar. Hooker Chemical executives claimed that they only agreed to sell the land because the school board threatened to condemn the property. There is no evidence that the school board did try to condemn the land, but there is evidence that they threatened to condemn land adjacent to the canal owned by Carmen Caggiano. Despite the fact that the school board only wanted to buy a portion of the canal, Hooker Chemical sold the entire property. Critics of the company’s handling of this disaster point to this move as evidence that Hooker Chemical was looking to get rid of the property as easily as possible, and their selling the property for one dollar was just for show. Hooker Chemical claimed that the school board led them to believe that land deemed “too close” to the canal would only be used as a park, and would never be built upon. The Board of Education denied ever making this claim, and the 99th Street School was later constructed too close to the canal.[6]

Outcomes edit

A protest by Love Canal residents, ca. 1978.

Impact on Residents edit

Heavy rain and increased water levels caused the already leaking chemicals to seep into the ground water and onto the surface. Residents panicked and blamed the chemicals for what they believed was an unusually high number of miscarriages and birth defects. Residents also blamed them for adult illnesses such as cancer. Since the sample size is so small, it is difficult to scientifically prove these claims. [7] About 950 families total were evacuated from the area over a few years. [8]

Government Response edit

On Aug. 7, 1978, President Carter approved emergency financial aid to purchase 236 Love Canal homes. Two years later, he declared a State of Emergency in Love Canal and evacuated the remaining 710 families. This set a precedent for similar disasters in the future, because this was the first national emergency declared for a non-natural disaster. [9] In September 1983, Love Canal was added to the Superfund list, recently created by the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA)[10] . With this, the US government (via the EPA) pledged to clean up the site. Love Canal was not removed from the list until 2004. [11]

Environmental Advocacy Groups' Response edit

To this day some environmental groups use this story as leverage for their cause. The language they use paints this as a horrible disaster caused by reckless chemical companies that must be stopped. A January 1979 article in the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency)'s EPA Journal names Love Canal "one of the most appalling environmental tragedies in American history." [12] A 2004 New York Times article announcing the end of clean-up efforts in Love Canal, called it a "Toxic Horror". [13]

Responsibility edit

Professional Duty edit

Hooker Chemical agreed to sell the canal for one dollar to the Niagara Falls Board of Education and included a written disclaimer of responsibility. [14] Although this stated Hooker would not be held liable for future legal obligations should they arise, it did not erase the risk that toxic compounds pose to human life. The experts at Hooker Chemical knew the dangers of the dumped chemicals, such as the highly toxic dioxin,as well as the extent to which these chemicals were properly stored and sealed. Sources indicate that Hooker was aware of these potential risks and recommended that the area be sealed off "so as to prevent the possibility of persons or animals coming in contact with the dumped materials."[15]. Jackson agrees that "Hooker Chemical had the most insight into the potential hazards of their chemical wastes...being the most knowledgeable about such matters...should be held accountable for making certain that proper measures are taken." [16]. Some sources indicate that Hooker was negligent in waste disposal practices, however Judge Curtin concluded, "the overwhelming weight of evidence given by experts in the field of waste disposal during the relevant time period show that Hooker comported with and often exceeded the standards demanded by statue..."[17] Thus it appears that Hooker took necessary precaution in disposing of the waste, however they agreed to move forward with the sale despite knowing that the school board planned to erect schools on the land.

Professional responsibility not only entails identifying the problem, but also taking the correct action to resolve it. In this case, Hooker Chemical did the correct thing to warn the Niagara Falls school board of the dangers of the toxic waste, however they failed to take preventative action and refuse to sell the land no matter the circumstances. Jackson further believes that members of the school board were not knowledgeable enough to be aware of the dangers of chemical waste[18]. Mazur's text reveals that board members were voluntary employees who held occupations in different fields, making the school board oblivious to the risk at hand[19]. As an expert in the field of chemical waste, Hooker Chemical failed to assume responsibility which ultimately put lives at risk.

Diffusion of Responsibility edit

The effects of this disaster may have been perpetuated by a diffusion of responsibility among the parties involved. As the land changed hands, first from Hooker Chemical to the City of Niagara Falls School Board and then to developers, each selling party tried to wash their hands clean and pass all responsibility to the next group. Hooker Chemical did so by symbolically selling the site for one dollar and adding a transfer of liability clause to the contract. The School Board attempted to do the same with the wording of their contract with developers.

In 1960, the School Board sold the land to developers, against the advisement of Hooker Chemical who sent their attorney to a Board of Education meeting in 1956 to argue this point. The damage had already been done. In 1957, while these negotiations were still taking place, city construction workers broke through the clay barrier that sealed of the toxic waste while laying sewer lines for the planned neighborhood next to the dump-site. [20] However, they never reported this. Few records about this survive today, so it is unclear if the construction workers knew about the chemicals, but the city who hired them did. As time went on, more and more decisions weakened the chemical containment in the land. More projects that require excavation took place: buried sewer and water pipes, building foundations, and maintenance of existing infrastructural.

Residents who did not live directly over the site were not informed of the chemicals, so they could not make an informed choice of where to live or take action to prevent further chemical decay. When the residents did find out, city officials tried to turn the blame back on the residents. Lois Gibbs was a Love Canal resident who would later become a leader of resident protests and outcry. After learning about the chemicals in a 1978 Niagara Falls Gazette article, she tried to get her son's school changed. According to Gibbs, the school board superintendent told her in a one-on-one meeting: “We’re not going to do that because of one hysterical housewife with a sick kid ... Well, if your kid is so sick, why don’t you go home and take care of him? Why are you running around to City Hall and the school board?” [21]

Related Case: Ohio River Park edit

In the 1950s through the 1960s, Pittsburgh Coke & Chemical Co. owned property on the western tip of Neville Island, PA[22]. They disposed of industrial waste resulting from manufacture of chemical products at this site. They ceased operation in 1966 and the land was acquired by Neville Land Co. and then donated to Allegheny County in 1976 for use as a park. After spending $2.4 million to develop the land, the county discovered the buried waste and returned the land to Neville Land Co.[23]

It is unclear whether Neville Land Co. knew of the buried waste on the property. Regardless, once the county discovered the waste during construction, it took full responsibility and halted the park project. This case is interesting because it represents a situation where the non-experts (county officials) chose to assume responsibility rather than the experts. Neville Land Co. received the returned land and cleaned it up under the supervision of the EPA, state, and county officials. The cooperation between the relevant groups allowed the land to be returned to productive use.

By comparing this case to Love Canal, we can observe that as long as a major participant assumes responsibility, public safety can be preserved. Although it seems more reasonable for the professional expert to assume a bulk of the responsibility, it is possible for non-experts to stand up and accept responsibility as well. It is only when both parties refuse to accept responsibility, that disaster can occur.

References edit

  3. Zuesse, Eric. (1981) "Love Canal: The Truth Seeps Out." Reason Magazine.
  4. Zuesse, Eric. (1981) "Love Canal: The Truth Seeps Out." Reason Magazine.
  5. Mazur, Allan. (1998) A Hazardous Inquiry. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  6. Levine, Murray. (1982). Love Canal. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.