Ending a 16-year legal case that became synonymous with toxic pollution, the Clinton administration announced Thursday that Occidental Chemical Corp. has agreed to pay $129 million to the federal government for its cost of cleaning up the Love Canal neighborhood near Niagara Falls.
The settlement is one of the biggest enforcement actions pursued by the government under the Superfund law, the Environmental Protection Agency said.
Under the agreement, Occidental will pay $102 million to the EPA's Superfund to cover government cleanup costs. The company will pay an additional $27 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which undertook the initial evacuation and cleanup.
Those payments, however, are well short of the amount that the government had sought. The Justice Department said Thursday that the $129-million total represents the full cost of cleaning up the dump and relocating its residents.
However, the government will not receive an additional $80 million it requested in interest on its spending, and the government will contribute $8 million to the Superfund to settle a claim by Occidental that the government dumped toxic waste into the canal during World War II.
For 11 years, beginning in 1942, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp., which Occidental purchased in 1968, poured about 20,000 tons of hazardous chemicals into the abandoned canal in upstate New York. Hooker sold its property for $1 in 1953 to the Niagara Falls school board.
An elementary school was built on the property and homes were constructed nearby.
A quarter of a century later, residents of the bungalows complained that foul substances were oozing into their basements and that children were splashing through orange puddles on their sidewalks.
More than 1,000 families--virtually an entire neighborhood--were eventually evacuated. Dioxin, one of the chemical world's most poisonous substances, was removed from creeks and sewers. Eventually, a massive cleanup was undertaken, first under federal disaster authority and then under the Superfund law enacted in 1980 to clean up some of the worst toxic waste sites in the nation.
The settlement with Occidental follows a $98-million settlement between the company and the state of New York last year. The federal lawsuit followed a course that the Clinton administration says would be difficult to navigate under changes in the Superfund law that are now being contemplated in Congress.
Under one of the major proposals, companies that dump toxic wastes into such sites as Love Canal before the Superfund law took effect would not be held responsible for the full cleanup costs.
"The Love Canal settlement underscores this administration's firm commitment to ensuring that polluters, not the American people, pick up the tab for cleaning up toxic waste dumps," said EPA administrator Carol Browner.
The success story, heralded by Browner and Atty. Gen. Janet Reno in a news conference at the Justice Department, comes at a time when the Clinton administration is fighting to retain a strong Superfund program. The administration faces a campaign led by Republicans in Congress to restructure the antipollution program in a way that the Administration says would lessen corporate responsibility for the cost of cleaning up the waste dumps.
Among the complaints about the current program are charges that its costs are extravagant and that too much is being spent on administration. Browner has acknowledged that the program has had a spotty record over the last decade. But she said that the government has cleaned up as many toxic sites in the last two years as in the previous decade.
Citing the settlement of the Love Canal case as an argument against major revisions, Reno said: "Legislative proposals to gut environmental enforcement, or to give tax credits or immunity to companies that pollute our neighborhoods, would be a windfall to the indifferent and to the irresponsible."
It is an issue with wide impact. The EPA says that one in four Americans, including 10 million children under the age of 12, lives within four miles of a toxic waste dump.
The Love Canal consent decree was filed with Judge John T. Curtin, who has presided over the case for 16 years, in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, N.Y.
An Occidental spokesman in Los Angeles said that the company had no comment on the settlement. The company has continued production in the Niagara Falls area, making caustic soda, which is a bleaching agent, and chlorine.
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Love Canal owes its name to William T. Love, who created the excavation in 1894 in the hopes of providing inexpensive hydroelectric power to companies that would locate along the banks. The project was abandoned when the ditch was 3,200 feet long. For nearly half a century, the flooded canal was used as a swimming hole--until the 1940s, when Hooker began dumping not only dioxin but a toxic soup of more than 80 pollutants, including trichlorophenol, lindane and metal chlorides.