Chemical Firm Wins Ruling on Damages at Love Canal
Occidental Chemical Corp. does not have to pay New York punitive damages for the Love Canal contamination that forced hundreds of people to abandon their homes, a judge ruled Thursday.
New York had sought penalties of up to $250 million from Occidental, the corporate successor to Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp., which dumped 22,000 tons of hazardous waste at Love Canal in the 1940s and 1950s.
But U.S. District Judge John Curtin said state prosecutors failed to prove that the company showed “reckless disregard for the safety of others.”
Hooker buried waste at Love Canal using disposal techniques that were acceptable for the era, Curtin said in his 190-page ruling.
He criticized the company for failing to warn Love Canal residents about the dangers of chemicals stored at the site, where homes were built in the 1950s. But he said Hooker was under no obligation to do so.
“This thing stinks, man,” said Lois Gibbs, who led a homeowners’ group that pushed New York and the federal government to buy their houses and relocate their families in the 1970s and 1980s.
“If that was you or me who did these things, we would go to jail. We would be punished, which is what punitive damages are for,” said Gibbs, now an environmental lobbyist in Washington.
Occidental Chemical President J. Roger Hirl hailed the ruling. “You cannot judge people or companies based on today’s knowledge for actions taken 40 to 50 years ago.”
Curtin is still considering Occidental’s claim that the federal, state and local governments should share in the cleanup costs.
The state and federal governments sued Occidental for cleanup costs and interest, which could total $350 million. Under the Superfund law, Occidental is liable for at least part of the cleanup.