My topic is environmental philosophy and hazardous wastes. There are lots of benefits to living in a high-tech society—but there are also many risks, including dangerous waste products. How do we handle the risky chemicals that much of our lifestyle depends upon, and, at the same time, keep our human environment safe and beautiful?
I want to discuss the disaster at Love Canal, New York. It is, I think, the most famous toxic waste scare in American history. It’s also a case that shaped environmental thinking and activism hugely for two generations now. So what’s the lesson of history here?
I want to start with some good news about the Love Canal case. It was in the 1970s, and there have been a number of long-term studies. Fortunately, they have shown there has been no increase in rates of cancer or birth defects among the Love Canal area’s residents. That’s very welcome news, even though there were toxic chemicals released into the environment, hundreds of homeowners and their families were frightened, dislocated, and on top of that, there was a huge loss of property value.
Now here is the bad news: the Love Canal case is a classic example of unfortunately bad journalism combined with bad philosophy. Almost five decades later that combination continues to infect our public thinking and public policy.
The story of Love Canal begins in the 1940s. The Hooker ElectroChemical Corporation acquired some land in the Love Canal area, Niagara Falls, upstate New York, close to Canada. And it intended to use it as a dump for by-products from its chemical manufacturing. Before the 1940s, the U.S. Army and the city government itself had used the site as a dump as well. So Hooker Corporation engineers tested the site and judged it safe, inspectors from both local and state government also approved the site’s use upon investigation. The various governments involved with jurisdiction then issued appropriate permits. Hooker then proceeded to use the Love Canal site until the early 1950s, at which time it sealed the site, put over it an impermeable clay covering and then left it alone.
We fast forward two decades to the 1970s, which is when the disaster struck. Some Love Canal residents started to notice seepage into their homes, and they notified the authorities: very ugly, foul-smelling, discoloring seepage. The authorities then identified the seepage as toxic chemicals. The residents were naturally outraged, scared, frightened, wanted something done. Reporters from all over the country converged upon Love Canal. The story went national, it went international. President Jimmy Carter, at the time, declared Love Canal a disaster area and eventually about 900 families were relocated.
Now we turn to the importance of journalism and philosophy.
In the press, Hooker faced widespread condemnation. Activist Ralph Nader, a huge name at the time, denounced it as a “callous corporation” that clearly and obviously and willfully dumped chemicals into the environment without caring about public safety. The Atlantic Monthly, a huge public-intellectual journal in 1979,in a major article asked whether we can expect privately-owned corporations to act responsibly. Of course not, the article implied, and suggested that their profit motive makes them care more about money than the health of people. Hooker soon faced over $2 billion in lawsuits. The federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency quickly enacted many new rules about how corporations must handle waste. In 1980 the U.S. Congress approved Senator Al Gore’s then-$400 billion Superfund bill to address the nation’s toxic waste sites.
In large part because of Love Canal, an environmental philosophy became entrenched in our public consciousness. It goes something like this: Uncaring, profit-hungry corporations are poisoning our environment, causing birth defects and cancer—and only government can save the day.
That narrative, however, in the case of Love Canal, is pretty much exactly the opposite of the truth. So here’s some more important history to factor into our thinking.
Also early in the 1950s, after Love Canal landfill site had been closed by the Hooker Corporation and sealed, the Niagara Falls’ Board of Education wanted land to build new schools. It looked around and liked the Love Canal site, so it approached the Hooker Corporation and asked to buy the land. What did the corporation do? Well, it refused to sell. The corporation pointed out to the school board that the site contained toxic chemicals and was clearly inappropriate for a school.
Note the narrative irony here: A government wants to build a school for children on a chemical dump site, and a private-property-profit-motive corporation is pointing out that that really is a bad idea.
But the Board of Education, as a government agency, had the power of politics on its side — in this case, it has the power of eminent domain. What is eminent domain? In the American context, it is a label for a set of policies that gives governments the power to take any piece of private property it wants. Eminent domain powers come from the so-called Takings Clause in the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment. Governments can take whatever they want, as long as it’s for a public purpose and as long as just compensation is given to the property owner. That’s an ancient clause now by American standards going back to the 1700s, but over the years, over the decades and over the centuries what has counted as a “public purpose” has broadened amazingly as American politics has increasingly broadened its understanding of what governments should be allowed to regulate and control and do. Originally, at the time, public use meant something like land for government buildings, land for, in some cases, edges of water that are essential for military bases, for the army, for the navy, and perhaps for roads. Over time legislatures and the courts agreeing with them expanded that list to include pretty much any infrastructure goal and anything that would increase the government’s tax base. After all, the money that governments raise by means of taxes are used for public purposes.
So by the time we get to the 1950s, the Niagara Falls, New York school board, as a branch of government, had the power to override Hooker Corporation’s refusal. The corporation said: This is our private property, and we are not going to sell. But the government, in this case, can threaten to have the local government condemn the property and force the land sale. Eminent domain in action.
Under threat, the Hooker Corporation relented, and they sold the property to the city for one dollar. But in the sale contract — and loudly in other public forums — the Hooker Corporation made explicit the property’s history: it had been a dump site, there were dangerous toxic chemicals in it. It expressed very strong opposition to the city government’s plans to build a school upon it, and it specified that under absolutely no circumstances should the clay barrier that’s covering over the toxic chemicals be breached.
Now, guess what happened next.
The city government proceeded to develop the property, punching the clay barrier to run sewer lines. It sold off parcels of the land to builders and developers who then proceeded to construct homes upon the land. And, as it had originally wanted, the government went ahead and built two schools and some playgrounds there. It’s for the children, after all.
So who are the bad guys in the Love Canal story?
All of the above is a matter of public record, and early in the disaster, as it materialized in the 1970s, some critics started to argue that the Love Canal case was being mishandled in the press and that the wrong lessons were being learned.
But the Big-Corporations/Bad-Corporations/Good-Government narrative prevailed — that is a powerful narrative. It is very strong in the public consciousness and among our intellectuals. Those minority voices were barely heard over the outrage, the cries of “Greedy Chemical Corporations” and the overwhelming demands that more control be given to governments to do something.
What’s interesting is that almost four decades later, as we get into the 2010s, that narrative Bad Corporations/Good Government still prevails in the popular media. A USA Today journalist, a national newspaper, in 2013 (!) told the story this way: “Love Canal’s notorious history began when Hooker Chemical used the abandoned canal from 1942 to 1953 to dump 21,800 tons of industrial hazardous waste. That canal was later capped, and homes and a school were built on top of it.” Absolutely zero mention of the school board’s involvement, no mention whatsoever of eminent domain and the government’s ability to force the sale.
Also in the 2010s, here I have another piece of journalism, this is an NPR station. It quite properly praises the grassroots efforts of many of the people of the Love Canal area—mostly housewives who were demanding action in face of the threat, some of the local and state-government were stonewalling—and the NPR station praises the federal government’s Superfund project in response—but identifies it as the essential solution to all such environmental problems. Once again, what is not mentioned at all is eminent domain and the fact that it was local government’s intervention with state government and so on that forced the sale and went ahead and did the key developments.
But it is important to say — and this is the critical lesson of history — that Love Canal, the disaster, would not have happened without two things: (1) the political power of eminent domain and (2) all of the government officials who were involved, from the school board and the local government on up, being very confident that they would not be held liable if anything went wrong. It’s the You-Cannot-Sue-City-Hall mentality writ large.
Now, this issue is very serious because we live in a science-and-engineering-intensive society. We all love the many benefits of a high-tech society, and many of those benefits are made possible only by very sophisticated chemical engineering. But we need to know how to handle the risks that come with that, including the hazardous waste. How do we handle the dangerous chemicals that our lifestyle depends upon and keep our environment safe, beautiful, economically efficient — all of the things that the proper environmental philosophy will value? We have to learn the right lessons from the big mistakes that are made, and Love Canal is a huge, huge mistake.
What we should be asking, as a result of the Love Canal case is this:
- Did Love Canal lessen any government’s ability to acquire land through eminent domain? Has eminent domain been reformed in any sense as a result of this very clear abuse of that power?
- Were any of the politicians or other government officials ever prosecuted for criminal neglect, for knowingly building a school, puncturing the clay barrier — that they had been warned about — for a government purpose?
- Were any of them, if they were not prosecuted for criminal neglect, forced to pay any sort of civil damages?
- Did any go to prison or otherwise suffer politically?
Sadly, the answers to all four of those questions are no, no, no, and no. And that is a profound journalistic, legal, and philosophical irresponsibility.
The important thing here is that in the Love Canal case, the private corporation behaved responsibly — and it did so precisely because of its profit motive. The officers of the corporation were likely normal human beings, and normal human beings do not want to poison other people, but the profit motive gave them an additional incentive to act responsibly: they wanted a positive business reputation, they wanted to avoid expensive lawsuits. So they did exactly what responsible people should do.
But precisely in the Love Canal case, the public government behaved irresponsibly — and it is precisely because its officers had little accountability, either monetary or legal.
Adding to all of that, our bad journalism and our bad environmental philosophy, at least the mainstream ones, have reinforced that irresponsibility. That template is strong in people’s minds and instead of doing serious journalism and serious philosophical investigation, many people sloppily just fall back on templates.
The subsequent history of the case has been to punish the party that behaved responsibly. Hooker and Occidental Petroleum — Occidental acquired Hooker in 1968 — they have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages, they have been pilloried in the press, and they have suffered much public condemnation.
And the subsequent history has been to let the party actually responsible off the hook. The members of the Niagara Falls school board, their enablers in the city’s government have largely been able to avoid public scrutiny for their role. They have been able to avoid having to pay the financial costs of the lawsuits and the cleanup. It has all been shifted on to other parties.
Now, my point is not that private corporations always behave well or that government officers always behave badly. The point is that all power should be accountable.
The Love Canal case is the most significant case in the American toxic-waste history. We should learn that the power of governments to coerce land sales should be scrutinized, it should be limited. Tens of thousands of local governments all around the country still have that largely unchecked power of eminent domain, tens of thousands of politicians still want to build schools, put their names on them, and do all sorts of other public works projects, they want to acquire land cheaply, they want to enhance their tax revenues. Eminent domain is a gift-from-God power, speaking metaphorically, that they have. But Love Canal is a very clear example of how those political incentives can lead to environmental disaster. For those of us who genuinely care about clean and safe environments, that is the political lesson we should be learning. Do the investigation. And by way of internal advertisement for this series, for another case of government-caused environmental disaster, please see my episode on the Bhopal, India, chemical spill.
This article is an edited transcript of a previously released podcast (2013) featuring Dr. Stephen Hicks on why the toxic waste spill at Love Canal still matters to our environmental thinking. The article is published with permission.