Joseph E. Ceretto has found his dream house. He speaks rapturously of its beautiful woodwork, ample basement and fireplace. He notes its proximity to parks, baseball diamonds, churches and a major shopping mall.
As if all that were not enough, the three-bedroom, ranch-style house is selling for about 20% below the prices he would expect to pay elsewhere in Niagara Falls. "It's really an excellent home," says the 28-year-old substitute teacher, who is single and living with his parents. "I know I'm making a good investment, for one, and a good home life, for another."
So where did he find such a gem? In a soon-to-be opened development called Black Creek Village--but better known as the neighborhood around Love Canal, the most infamous toxic waste dump in U.S. history.
A dozen years after Love Canal's terrified residents packed up and fled, federal and state officials have declared parts of the area habitable again. Ceretto is one of hundreds of people who have expressed interest in buying the abandoned homes that begin going on sale there Wednesday. Ten homes, ranging in price from $48,000 to $81,000 and averaging around 1,100 square feet, are being spruced up for the first round of bidding. Planners eventually expect more than 200 to be put up for sale.
The quasi-governmental Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency, which is selling the properties, has received inquiries from as far away as California. One of them came from Joseph W. Dimmitt, an 80-year-old retiree who says he is fed up with the smog and congestion of Glendale. "It sounded intriguing. It sounded like a little bit of a challenge," Dimmitt says of the idea of moving his family to Love Canal.
To Niagara Falls Mayor Michael C. O'Laughlin, who is also the chairman of the revitalization agency, the reopening of the area seems like the dawn of a new day. That is why he wanted to call it Sunrise Village, instead of naming the area for the creek that runs through it. "I wanted to be a little more optimistic," he says.
But to a group of environmental and civil rights organizations fighting the resettlement, the first sales represent gloomy storm clouds. Rebecca Todd, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, contends that the area is still dangerous, and says: "It sends the complete wrong signals to everyone involved with hazardous waste issues."
No toxic site is as laden with symbolism as this one, she argues, and if it is deemed fit for habitation without proper safeguards, other polluters will follow suit, reasoning, "If it's good enough for Love Canal . . ." Her organization and several others say they will go to federal and state courts to try to block the home sales.
Right now, much of the neighborhood looks like a ghost town, with weeds growing through the cracks of its buckled streets and sidewalks. Plywood covers the windows of empty houses, and porch lights burn 24 hours a day to discourage the vandals who have stripped many of the homes of aluminum siding, copper pipes and anything else of value. Vacant churches, silent schoolyards, deserted basketball courts give mute testimony that this eerie place was once a typical blue-collar suburban community.
Scattered here and there are signs of what life remains--a painstakingly tended garden, a car parked in a driveway, a "beware of dog" sign. These are the homes of the 55 or so families who decided to stay, rather than accept the government's offer to buy their property. Behind a 10-foot-tall chain link fence is the 70-acre grassy mound that entombs the canal itself.
Almost a century before Love Canal became a nation's nightmare, it was one man's dream. William T. Love mapped out a "model city" on virgin land near the magnificent Niagara Falls. Where grime and factory smoke were the economic lifeblood of other industrial cities, this one would have a canal delivering clean electricity from the falls. But his plans were doomed by a recession around the turn of the century and the development of alternating current, which made electricity available even to inland cities.
Hooker Chemical Co. bought the land in 1942, shortly after the city had drained the never-completed canal and turned it into a dump. For the next 11 years Hooker put 21,800 tons of toxic waste into the canal's seemingly impermeable bottom, thought to be an ideal grave. Hooker (later acquired by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum Corp., and now known as Occidental Chemical) then sold Love Canal landfill to the growing city for $1. In 1978, long after an elementary school was built atop the old canal, neighbors discovered that rainwater and development had forced some of these poisons upward into looser soil, through which they had migrated into basements, sewers and yards.
Love Canal was the alarm that woke the country to the dangers of toxic chemical dumps, and had homeowners everywhere wondering just what might be buried in their back yards. It was the first man-made environmental disaster ever declared a federal emergency, and the impetus behind the 1980 passage of the so-called Superfund law creating a nationwide program for cleaning up hazardous sites.
Love Canal was also one of the first beneficiaries of that program. All told, the federal and state governments spent about a quarter-billion dollars to evacuate residents and clean up the area. More than 25,000 cubic yards of dioxin-tainted sediment and other materials were taken from sewers and creeks and stored on the canal site. Love Canal itself was covered with a three-foot-thick clay cap, with monitors installed to detect leakage.
In 1988, a decade after the dangers at Love Canal were first recognized, New York State Health Commissioner David Axelrod declared that four of the seven areas near the canal were again habitable, based on the findings of a joint federal-state study. In those four areas, soil and air samples tested cleaner overall than samples taken from two other parts of Niagara Falls.
"It may sound a little bit like a joke, but this is one of the cleaner areas of Niagara Falls," says James E. Carr, planning director for the Love Canal Area Revitalization Agency.
That's hardly reassuring, retort the opponents of the planned resettlement. The banks of the Niagara River leading to those falls are carpeted with chemical plants, and the county is home to six Superfund clean-up sites, including Love Canal.
State authorities "accepted (existing conditions in Niagara Falls) as normal. Everyone has studiously avoided saying it is safe," says Todd, the environmental group attorney. Indeed, Axelrod himself conceded, upon declaring the areas habitable, that "any public health judgment necessarily involved the assessment of an inherent level of uncertainty."
So what else is new, longtime residents of this city want to know. "All of Niagara Falls is nothing but chemicals--always was," says Warren S. Payne, the 69-year-old owner of a floor-covering store. With all but one of his 11 children grown and out of the house, Payne hopes to turn his business over to three of his sons and retire with his wife to Love Canal.
"I think it would be an ideal place--shady and very pleasant," Payne says. "I told them we would be interested in any house that was along the creek that had a good-sized lot."
Although Joseph Sibilio bought a home just last year in downtown Niagara Falls, he is ready to move again, because he views Love Canal as a step up for himself, his wife and his 2-year-old daughter. The assistant service manager of a local Toyota dealership, Sibilio took a Sunday drive through the area a while ago and spotted several homes that are "the type of house I would like to live in, but I couldn't afford in any other part of the city. It would get me in a newer house in a better school district."
Sibilio, 40, has confidence that the government cleanup made the area safe again--safer than the rest of the city, where "you can't tell where anything is buried." He has even urged his mother to consider moving to Love Canal.
Nor does it seem to worry the homeowners who stayed behind when their neighbors fled. "A lot of this is mind over matter," grouses 73-year-old Emma Kelley, as she waters the marigolds on her front lawn just a few blocks from the canal. The government says her neighborhood is still unfit for habitation, but she challenges a visitor to find grass greener than hers or vegetables more enticing than the ones she eats from her supposedly contaminated garden.
Kelley grew up in a house just down the street from the neat gray one where she lives now. In the 1920s, long before the chemical firm owned Love Canal, she bathed in it and learned to swim there. Her father would tie big oil drums to her back and set her afloat. In the winter, Love Canal was where she would sled and skate.
"My next door neighbor lived to be 102," she says. "The people who had cancer, they'd have got it no matter where they lived. That Lois Gibbs--every time you saw her she had a cup of coffee in one hand and a cigarette in the other."
The name of Lois Gibbs comes into virtually every conversation about Love Canal around here. By her account, she was just a housewife concerned about health problems that her two small children were experiencing. Michael had epilepsy, liver problems, a urinary tract disorder and asthma. His little sister, Melissa, was born with a rare blood disease.
Doctors told her they were just sickly, but when Niagara Gazette reporter Michael H. Brown started writing in 1978 about health problems associated with chemicals leaking from under the schoolyard, she began to suspect otherwise. First, she tried to have her son transferred to another school; when that did not work, she mounted a petition drive to close the school.
As she went door-to-door, Gibbs says, she discovered that many of her neighbors had alarming stories of their own: a 13-year-old who had to have a hysterectomy for cancer; a 21-year-old whose inexplicable death was likened to sudden infant death syndrome; three women on the same block giving birth to babies whose skulls did not have the soft spot that permits growth.
Others talked about the foul black mess that would seep through their basement walls and up through the ground in their yards, or the terrible fumes that made their eyes water.
Suddenly, Lois Gibbs was the general at the head of an angry neighborhood army that soon had national attention. Gov. Hugh L. Carey and President Jimmy Carter, both facing reelection, acted quickly. Women and small children were told to move temporarily from the neighborhood, then the 238 houses on blocks around the canal were evacuated and ultimately bulldozed.
Two years later, a larger area containing 792 more homes was evacuated, based on the findings of several health studies that are still in dispute. People received an average of about $30,000 from the government for their homes. Many of these are the houses that now stand to be sold.
All sides have never been able to agree on a single study documenting the health effects of chemical leakage from Love Canal.
Nor can they agree on whether the 1980 evacuation of homes outside the "inner ring" around Love Canal was warranted.
For Pat Brown, Love Canal is "the nightmare that we live with the rest of our lives." From the early 1960s until her family was evacuated in 1978, Brown lived just across the street from the canal.
After two miscarriages, Brown gave birth to a daughter who was found, at the age of 14 months, to have a cluster of tumors on her knee. Doctors said they had never seen anything like it, and her daughter, now 24, still suffers from rheumatoid arthritis.
Brown says the mothers of Love Canal panic "every time one of our children comes down with a swollen gland, a cough, anything. That fear never goes away."