You are here

Learning from Love Canal: Who is Accountable?

January 13, 2017

The Love Canal disaster, brought to national attention in 1976, is one of the most prominent environmental disputes in US history, involving a plethora of national and state conflicts and developing a complex legacy that has since been enshrined in public policy. History major Henry Carras, who is also pursuing a major in political science, recognizes parallels between what happened in Love Canal, New York and the current water crisis unfolding in Flint, Michigan. With the support of the Hedley Donovan Scholarship, which provided major funding for his research, he dove deep into the history of the Love Canal debacle and discovered a nuanced story filled with many opinions on who is to blame for the environmental disaster.

Henry observed that Love Canal brings up interesting questions on environmental policies and who should foot the cost for the cleanup. When the chemical company responsible for the dumping, Hooker Chemicals, sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board in 1953, they were not in violation of the environmental laws of that time. (To be fair, such laws were non-existent.) Additionally, the deed stated that the Niagara Falls School Board should not build or develop over the dump. Hooker made it clear to the school board that dangerous chemicals had been disposed in the dump, and that the company would not be responsible for any harm following the sale. Yet, the school board constructed a school and playground on the tainted land, which it had purchased for a mere $1 in 1953. In 1995, Occidental Chemicals (which had acquired Hooker Chemicals in 1968) was forced to pay $129 million in reparations for not meeting the hazardous waste disposal standards of 1979. Henry sees this as "very unfair," noting that "while the Superfund law for financing of cleanup provides that whomever was responsible for the dumping is responsible for the damages and the cleanup, it seems that the forcing of Occidental Chemicals to pay huge indemnities for the cleanup is not in the spirit of the law."

Furthermore, Henry uncovered problems with the media interpretation of Love Canal, much of which vilified the chemical company, but largely ignored the roles played by the city and New York state. He discovered that the the local media formed a narrative which put all the blame for the poisoning of the neighborhood's children on the chemical company. Henry stated that "while, admittedly, Hooker is not blameless, this narrative ignores the neglect on the part of the Niagara Falls School Board. It ignores the lethargic response by state and national authorities to address the problems of its citizens. It ignores the unequal treatment of African American residents during the Love Canal crisis by city officials when it came to temporary housing. The media wove an image which ignored the many nuances present at Love Canal."

Henry plans to circulate a report on his research to a variety of think tanks around the country in hopes of sparking conversation on the topic and inspiring scholars, organizations, and agencies to look carefully at many of the environmental and public health disasters around the nation. Henry ties it to current events, saying that "if anything, the situation in Flint should tell us that more needs to be done when it comes to these situations and that all those responsible for wrongdoing need to be held accountable."

Henry is a bold advocate for undergraduate research and encourages fellow students to take advantage of opportunities to conduct their own research. He is a primary architect behind the creation of the new University of Minnesota Undergraduate Research Journal, which will publish its first issue in the 2017-18 academic year. He also works in the history department as a research assistant, is active in student government, and has served as managing editor for the Minnesota Republic, a conservative magazine run by UMN students. Henry hopes to enter law school after graduating, but not before a year of travel and work. Following law school, he would like to join the Navy JAG (military law) program.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.