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The Lessons of Love Canal

WASHINGTON POST

In a simple linen dress and brown sandals, she seems girlishly fragile for a moment. But she speaks with an articulate intensity you’d be hard pressed to challenge. She is all fervency: that deep voice, those startling green eyes.

“If we’re going to take our country back,” she starts to say, and you know that for Lois Gibbs, “we” is the little people, and “they” are big business and big government. This is a war.

You can imagine Gibbs 20 years ago, toeing a line in the dirt of her home--in the dirt that was Love Canal--and saying: This far and no farther.

In Falls Church, Va., the yard of her ranch house is large, fringed with thick bamboo trees where morning birds gather. When she lived with her first husband in Niagara Falls, N.Y., the yard was tiny and money was tight. Gibbs had two small children and used to sew curtains and rise early to wax the floors. She was a homemaker, a self-proclaimed “Dolly Domestic.”

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These days, she works a 60-hour week at her foundation, with her second husband and nine other people in her employ. Through the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a network of grass-roots environmental groups, people can get information and training on fighting environmental hazards in their communities.

This year Gibbs celebrates the 20th anniversary of a fierce struggle that she and her community fought against New York state, Hooker Chemical Co. and 21,800 tons of chemical waste. Aug. 2 marked the first evacuation of a place whose very name has become toxic.

The anger, the effort and the trampled trust in government have left indelible imprints on her life. The license plates on her ’88 Dodge Caravan read “Toxic 2.”

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It starts, on a humid April day in 1978, with a door.

It’s the storm door to a brick house on 99th Street and Wheatfield Avenue, three blocks from her home. She’s sweaty and scared, standing on the steps, holding a clipboard with several sheets of paper.

Gibbs is starting a petition to close her son’s school. Since he began kindergarten eight months ago, Michael has developed epilepsy and a low white blood cell count. She wouldn’t have blamed anything other than bad luck and bad genes, but for a series of articles in the Niagara Falls Gazette pointing to the presence of chemical waste under the 99th Street School.

Lois Gibbs is 27. And her carefully constructed life--the neatly kept $30,000 three-bedroom bungalow, the homemade curtains, the spotless floors--is about to disintegrate.

Lois Gibbs, 47, picks big bones. Right now she’s promoting the 20th anniversary of her success at Love Canal. This month she’ll give a tour of the area to legislators, ex-homeowners and the media.

Love Canal has left her with enduring suspicions.

“I always understood that if you had a problem, the government was supposed to help you,” she says. “They taught you that in school.” These days she believes that “there are few people in power. . . . Every time you go around the circle, you keep coming back to those same few people.”

Gibbs spent two years in the belly of the Love Canal uproar--the fears that swept the country, the conflicting health studies, the state’s confusion about a plan of action, Hooker’s denials of wrongdoing.

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‘Good Reason to Be Cynical’

Twenty years later, no long-term health effects on former residents have been proved. Many studies have been declared inconclusive, in part because of the small population of those affected and the intervening years. But the phenomenon of Love Canal is fertile ground for science, and two decades have not clouded interest. Right now, the New York state Department of Health is conducting another long-term health study.

Gibbs believes the government didn’t take the threat seriously enough.

“Anything that was done there was based on panic and political pressure,” Gibbs says.

For the state and the EPA, “it was new ground. They had no precedent on how to proceed,” says Clark Heath, who was director of the Centers for Disease Control’s chronic disease epidemiology department for 23 years and worked on the Love Canal crisis. “Government is good, even if it isn’t always very fast.”

Some would agree that Gibbs has cause for doubt.

“It’s taken a long time for people to take public health issues into concern versus economic health,” says John Adams, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “I think there’s good reason to be somewhat cynical.”

Gibbs’ childhood hometown of Grand Island, between Buffalo and Niagara Falls, had one grocery store and no movie theater. She was hooked early on domesticity.

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“That’s all she ever wanted was a home and a husband and children,” says her mother, Patricia Conn.

Harry Gibbs came along after high school, and they married and moved to Niagara Falls. Harry had a job at the Goodyear plant, monitoring vats of chemicals, and Gibbs stayed at home with their son, Michael, and, soon enough, daughter Melissa.

Behind the wheel of Toxic 2, Gibbs is recalling the recipe for an ideal life.

“We had a white picket fence, we had a station wagon, we had a healthy child, we had a wood-burning stove, we had cable. We had the whole American dream,” she says.

But there was the smell. It was sweet and synthetic and so pervasive the community got used to it. It permeated their basements and backyards and the blocks around their homes.

In the 1940s and ‘50s, Hooker had dumped chemical wastes into a trench left over from the unfinished Love Canal hydroelectric power project and later sold the site to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1.

Forced by Circumstances to Act

In the ‘70s, high precipitation caused the contents of the trench to rise and migrate to the surrounding soil and water. In 1978, the state identified more than 80 chemicals in the area, some of which are known carcinogens.

“I waited at the house for somebody to knock on my door and tell me what to do at Love Canal. . . . And then when nobody came, I went and knocked on doors,” Gibbs says. With the plummeting real estate values in the area, her family could not afford to move.

She became president of the residential association, and with adversity came flair. Under her leadership, Love Canal homeowners picketed and rallied, carried empty coffins to Albany and burned politicians in effigy. Gibbs was everywhere--in print, on TV and radio. Several partial evacuations took place, but not until President Carter’s 1980 emergency evacuation order were Gibbs’ family and others in areas slightly farther from the dumping site relocated. A total of about 7,000 people moved, and the government purchased their homes. In late 1980, Congress passed the Superfund law to fund cleanup of sites, including Love Canal, for which Gibbs has been dubbed “Mother of the Superfund.”

Big battles die hard. Just this last May, Occidental Chemical Corp., Hooker’s successor company, and the city of Niagara Falls settled two 19-year-old lawsuits. Occidental has paid more than $233 million in settlements to the state, the federal government and Love Canal ex-homeowners in recent years, without admitting any wrongdoing or negligence.

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Gibbs’ Center for Health, Education and Justice has worked with 10,000 community groups. For those who feel threatened by environmental pollutants, the group offers scientific information, organizational training, political savvy and small grants. Gibbs’ funding comes from about 20 private foundations, membership dues and individual contributions. The annual operating budget is just under $1 million.

Gibbs first formed the group in 1981 because, although she’d promised her husband otherwise, she found after Love Canal that she could not return to her normal life.

“We received all these calls from all these different people from across the country, and they were just like me. I realized that I had some sort of responsibility,” she says.

There are those who argue she’s too suspicious, too over-the-top. Her group’s biggest national campaign is to eliminate dioxin, a suspected carcinogen found at Love Canal, and Gibbs and her foundation have written the book “Dying From Dioxin.”

“I think [Gibbs] has difficulty in knowing when to declare victory,” says Clifford T. Howlett Jr., vice president of the Chemical Manufacturers Assn., who maintains that dioxin in the environment on the whole is “approaching the natural background levels” because of recent regulation and industry efforts. Neither his nor Gibbs’ assessment is definitive.

When the state declared parts of Love Canal habitable and began to repopulate it in 1990, Gibbs was back in the fray. She criticized the habitability study and the cleanup of the area, which involved soil-capping the site and collecting and treating the waste. She says that the measures are temporary, and that the next time water levels rise, Love Canal toxins will seep out again.

The cleanup measures are “pretty well permanent,” maintains the EPA’s Love Canal project coordinator, Damian Duda, who says no residents have reported health complaints linked to the site.

Gibbs and her second husband, Stephen Lester, a toxicologist she first met when he was hired by the state to work on Love Canal, have two sons, 7 and 12. Her elder children are grown now. Michael has recovered from the illnesses he had at Love Canal.

Gibbs spends about six months a year on the road, working with communities and students.

“I can’t remember the last time I went to bed before 1 a.m.,” Gibbs says.

“I’ve just learned to look beyond things,” Gibbs says. “When you almost lose your children, you really have a sense of how precious they are.”


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