Tag Archives: love canal

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Residuum

About 2.5 years ago, I heard Lois Gibbs speak. Her story, as a resident affected by the environmental disaster at Love Canal, NY, served as a touchstone for the work I do IRL—as an environmental scientist, a large part of what I do is contaminant remediation. As I mark five years of doing my best to reduce contamination and the risks it poses, I see Love Canal rise in the news again.

People often hear “environmental scientist” and automatically translate this to “environmentalist” (I need a whole other post to explain what’s wrong with that misnomer). Moreover, people usually think my main focus is climate change. To the wary public, I am the guy who wants ‘everyone to live as if we were in the stone age’.

I have very little defense to that, besides sighing quietly to myself.

I am not of the inclination to hold climate change as the biggest environmental threat to humanity. The dangers posed by climate change are largely out of our control. Perhaps how change is initiated is within our control (or so popular scientific opinion postulates)—but the outcomes, once change in the system is initiated, are outside of humanity’s grasp.

Realistically, we cannot stop a hurricane once it’s formed. We cannot guide tornadoes to gracefully sweep between rural communities. We cannot negotiate amounts of radiation the sun outputs.

In western society, we are increasingly overloaded with this guilt that we need to do something about everything. As I get older, I am starting to appreciate my small radius of influence. Many adverse environmental effects caused by the human hand are reasonably controllable. For what I can reasonably affect in my professional and personal roles, climate change doesn’t even hit my top five concerns.

Don’t get me wrong—it’s a valuable topic. But my concerns about climate change are not about what will happen to humanity. My concern is that humanity, in its current (generalized) state, has a questionable chance of being the kind of resilient species that spans eons of history.

Maybe you don’t believe in your body, but it is intimately connected to this earth. From what we understand about ecology, as long as there is an ecological function that a species can perform, that species will continue to find a place within its ecosystem.

We are an adaptive species—if it rains we try to remain dry, if it’s cold we try to stay warm, when it’s warm we try to keep cool. My study of yoga has further re-enforced my belief that as long as your system is maintained in a certain way, what’s happening externally is inconsequential. If your system is damaged in any way, your ability to flexibly adapt to a situation is going to be impinged upon.

Try this fun experiment.

Go to a summer music festival. Have a blast, but don’t take drugs or alcohol. Eat a balanced diet and drink plenty of water. Take regular, qualitative notes on your body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Wake up the next morning and take some notes on how you physically feel.

Ask a friend to join in on your experiment. Ideally, this friend is similar to you in body shape and medical history. Tell them to a have a blast, but they get to drink as much alcohol as they desire. Ask them to eat only spicy, greasy food. Take matching qualitative notes on your friend’s body temperature, sweat, and urine colour. Ask them the next morning how they feel (if they don’t spend the night in the medic’s tent).

I think it’s obvious what the outcome of the experiment is. I don’t even have to be a pedantic asshole and ask leading questions. You and your friend are experiencing the same external conditions. The difference is in the physical condition of the body. By what has been put into the body, a dramatically different experience—and a different outcome—can be induced. You may wake up with ringing in your ears from loud music. Your friend may spend the next week recovering from dehydration or sun stroke.

Of course, the acute and chronic effects of alcohol are self-evident. It’s easy enough to say, “You knew drinking nothing but vodka all day was going to lead to. Smarten up.”

Fair enough. Humanity doesn’t have a great record on being kind to its self. We have been around on the planet long enough to have figured out that we can get away with recreationally harming ourselves. If a substance hits our brain’s reward centres, chances are, we will put up with a lot of damage to our systems before we stop.

In a similar vein, we quest for comfort, convenience, and compulsion. Since the late 18th century, this quest has been characterized by the Industrial Revolution. In the short period that this has begun, humanity has synthesized a number of chemicals and substances that we would never otherwise find in nature.

With the exception of the well-known tryptamines, phenylethylamines, and other psychoactive substances we have created (mostly within the last century), many of the new, synthesized substances are not the kind of chemicals hipsters ingest so that their peers acknowledge how cool they are.

I am talking about substances that have practical uses in our industrial processes (or are by-products of those processes)—the substances that help drive our comforts, conveniences, and compulsions. Here, I am talking about halogenated compounds, pesticides, plastics, and polymers.

And then there are the natural compounds that we use in high concentrations or expose ourselves to in a way we very rarely would otherwise: heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and minerals.

These contaminants are ubiquitous in our environment. And not a benign ubiquity, like up-talk. In Canada, we have had a real knack of picking interesting locations for our most intense industrial activities. Think Hamilton Harbor, Sarnia’s Chemical Valley, Edmonton’s Refinery Row, Montreal’s industrial hub, and Vancouver’s Dockside Green.

And if you don’t live in one of these centres, don’t think you are immune. Even some of our remotest outposts have long-lived residual contamination in soil and groundwater (e.g. Ontario’s Grassy Narrows First Nation). And even then, if you think you are far and free from the dirty crowd, there is that thing that keeps coming in and out of your lungs: the air.

Toxicology is a relatively new science, and environmental technology is newer yet. It was thalidomide in the late 1950’s that first brought attention to the teratogenic effects of drugs (Rachel Carson followed up in the early 1960’s and brought the effects of pesticides to light). And in all reality, the thalidomide connection was made because it was directly following the drug’s release in 1957 that thousands of babies were born with deformed limbs and other defects. It was the immediacy of the impact that made the effects apparent.

Since then, we have started to understand the acute effects of the usual suspects on the human body. Year after year, we are learning about the effects of more and more chemicals, both the ones we take willingly and the ones we are exposed to in our environment.

And it’s not just acute effects. The chronic effects are starting to become obvious. Now, common substances we liberally used in our homes—plastics, fabrics with flame retardants, household cleaning & garage products—are being considered straight-up toxic.

Canada (Chemicals Management Plan) and the U.S. (Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act) have poorly funded programs to investigate the many chemicals used in our countries. Apart from that, we rely on companies to willingly identify their chemicals as toxic, or wait for universities to publish research.

Here’s a fun example.

Ever have your clothes dry cleaned? Ever use Brakleen to degrease something in your garage? Ever handle refrigerants?

If so, you have very likely been exposed to tricholoroethylene (TCE). The EPA announced in 2016 that TCE is deemed as toxic (it was also recently added to Canada’s toxic substances list). The US EPA recognizes TCE as a carcinogen and teratogen, with a number of effects on the respiratory and central nervous systems. In Canada, it has been detected in ambient air, the air inside homes, drinking water, and surface water.

But don’t worry! You can still have full access to it. The EPA is just now in the process of proposing a ban on TCE in commercial vapor degreasing. That will not stop its use in a multitude of other industrial and residential uses.

As we start to understand the effects of a multitude of chemicals, we are starting to understand how we might have fucked ourselves over. I can’t put a quantitative value to it, but we have a shitload of our vast landscape that is effectively poisoned. We are also finding out places we didn’t think would be impacted indeed are.

Which brings me back to resiliency. Compare two men in their 50’s. One worked in a garage, exposed day in and day out to a degreaser with TCE. Another worked in an office, and for arguments sake, we will say he was never exposed to TCE (or at least to a significantly less amount). Let’s turn up the heat in the room they are sitting in together. Let’s change the composition of the air they are breathing. Let’s throw some disasters at them. All things being the same, who do you think would fare better?

This is why contamination, to me, is head and shoulders above climate change. Sure, we may not have a home if the climate changes. That’s no problem—we are gone, end of story. But we all know nature doesn’t work in black & white. If doom is on its way, it will happen periodically and incrementally. There will a long, hellish road for humans before this planet is human-free.

If we continue to expose ourselves to chemicals, and allow contaminated sites to remain unmitigated, it won’t matter much whether the climate changes or not.

Which brings me back to Love Canal. This month, residents of North Tonawanda, NY have filed notices of claim for $60 million apiece against the neighbouring Town of Wheatfield (totaling a nearly $1 billion claim). The town’s inactive landfill historically accepted the spectrum of hazardous wastes, including material from Love Canal.

Residents paid for an independent soil investigation. Results showed hazardous chemicals, including those from Love Canal, were present on their properties after having migrated from the boundaries of the landfill. Additionally, the landfill was so poorly managed that lack of fencing and supervision meant people used it to dirtbike or jog. The plaintiffs in the proceedings have all been affected by cancer, headaches, respiratory issues, and nervous system disorders.

This may appear to be an isolated incident, and it may be right now. But this is primarily how we handle our hazardous chemicals. We choose a sacrificial area, call it a landfill, and then rely on public or private companies to monitor and manage the waste into the undefined future. The private companies will do their jobs as long as there is money. Love Canal became the first SuperFund site because the Hooker Chemical Company left their liability behind. It’s not unheard of for owners of environmental liability to go bankrupt, dissolve, or disappear.

These sacrificial areas may not be so unrealistic. Even in the body, there are distinct areas suited for handling ‘waste’ for our physical systems. The liver is a vital organ because it is such a dirty place—if toxins were everywhere else in the system, we could be dead. But because toxins accumulate in the liver, we have a buffering capacity. A little bit of bad exposure won’t kill a healthy liver.

But overwhelm or inhibit maintenance of the liver, and the body falls into trouble. The Wheatfield Landfill is a liver with cirrhosis. It is very likely not the only one like it. Just like any other addict, we are damn good at hiding that we get blotto and our livers whimper through our daily hangover.

Love Canal contains waste dating back almost 100 years. We are still dealing with its devastating consequences. “Climate change” may be fighting words in some parts, and guaranteed to spark a strongly opinionated conversation anywhere else. Some of that is the perception of deniability. But there is no denying environmental contamination. There is no doubt that certain chemicals have a detrimental effect on our bodies. The argument comes down to risk of exposure, which is always nuanced but is unable to dismiss the inherent adverse effects of those chemicals.

Technologies available to actually denature contaminants, or manage them in a reliable, long-term manner, are rare and expensive. If the money that went into climate change research went into contaminant remediation research, we could be so much farther along in enjoying a healthy environment.

To me, belabouring over climate change as opposed to something like contamination is like the yoga enthusiast who reads that through samyama, you can control other peoples’ minds. Cool! So this yoga enthusiast makes this their highest ideal. But this eager yogi can’t even sit straight or touch their toes.

That’s where we are at. As a society, our bodies and minds are in such a poor condition that we cannot touch our proverbial toes—we cannot control ourselves, yet we want to control something outside of ourselves.

In the legend of Saint George, a malicious dragon holds a Libyan empire under its long-clawed thumb. It lives in the emperor’s lake and requires two sheep (or children) per day to appease it or else it will poison the countryside. Saint George tames the dragon and convinces the pagans he saved to convert to Christianity. In one heroic swoop, Saint George conquers the problem and also convinces everyone to think like he does. In a way, climate change advocates are attempting to re-create this narrative.

I can sympathize with climate warriors. I get it. It’s much more rewarding to go to war with the dragon. Victory is so much sweeter, and failure is forgivable because it was a dragon, after all.

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Real Rises (Part Two)

I woke up tired. I had left the conference’s inaugural party early, but co-workers had also decided to leave…only to initiate a pub crawl. They talked about hockey and hunting and (personal) history, things I could not speak to cleverly, nevermind when I was getting progressively drunker. I was about 128 ounces of beer into the night when I made the twenty minute walk back to my hotel in the crisp mountain air.

Fortunately the conference had a full hot breakfast. And I wasn’t late, although my hair was wet.

My mind still resounded the chorus from the night before: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

And I still believed it that morning. Seeing everyone all cleaned up and tucked in made me existentially nauseous. So many fake fucking smiles that morning. And dull-headed small talk, hiding mouthfuls of mushy eggs behind polite hands or bunched napkins. I felt like shit and just wanted to eat, but I had to be polite and pretend to give a damn about the man from some company who did something something.

Thankfully there was a plenary speaker that morning. And she was the best thing that could have happened to me that day—maybe even in a long time.

I did not know Lois Gibbs before seeing her presentation. I did know about Love Canal, the disaster of the the 20th century that was so close to my home, and so close to absurdity, that it was one of the sparks that led me to my philosophical position…that eventually led me to the environmental sciences…that I used to be a humanist, until I realized that humanity was 0.00001% of the picture.

If you do not know about Love Canal, educate yourself. It is incredible, but all too real. In short, an unfinished trench (intended to be a transportation canal in the late 19th century) on the shores of the Niagara River became Hooker Chemical’s dump for toxic waste—that’s right: Hookers were dumping toxic waste in the Love Canal—I am not shitting you. In 1953, that waste was capped, and a subdivision was built over it (lubricated by Hooker Chemical’s land sale to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1).

Lois Gibbs was a mother of two children who lived in that subdivision. In her presentation, she described life in the LaSalle neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, New York. It was the typical white suburban neighbourhood you hear about in so many stories. Children played in the parks, families met for backyard barbecues, fathers got their crew-cut hairstyles at the barbershop. Nothing was out of the ordinary for upstate New York in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Lois then started describing the children in more detail. How her son started becoming allergic to many things, and started to become constantly ill. He developed epilepsy, asthma, and a low white blood cell count. Her daughter, similarly, was always sick. The other children in the neighbourhood were showing odd illnesses or were born with weird birth defects.

She never said this part, but I am sure there were quiet nights where Lois wondered what she had done wrong…days when she was paralyzed with wondering why her children were suffering so much. This subtext—the break in her voice—broke my heart.

Lois Gibbs and her daughter, 1978.

But in 1978, two reporters from the Niagara Falls Gazette started investigating the history of Love Canal—the historic toxic dump that was now the location of the elementary school and was surrounded by hundreds of suburban homes. They found disturbingly high levels of toxins in long forgotten about sumps. They exposed the 21,000 tons of toxic waste that was the foundation of the school and the neighbouring park. And they wrote a story about it.

Lois Gibbs being heard.

When Lois read this story, things changed in her life. She was, in her own words, a quiet, normal home maker. But in 1978, she transformed from Mrs. Cleaver to a radical community leader. She organized the community, and began rallying for the city, for the state, for anybody to address the issues at Love Canal. She conducted surveys about birth defects in the area around Love Canal, and investigated the area’s history obsessively. She documented unidentified waste seeping to surface, and sinkholes where rusted barrels of waste lay exposed. She recounted stories of children playing with the waste, picking it up and chasing each other around. She rallied Hooker Chemical and the government to act, but they both ignored her.

Lois Gibbs hard at work protecting her children and the people of Love Canal (I just love this photo).

Lois made a poignant point about risk and the value of people (and really hit her stride in her presentation). Hooker Chemical was able to say that the risk of contamination was negligible, and even if there was contamination, the value to clean it up would outweigh the cost of leaving it in place. Which essentially meant that the lives it was endangering were not worth the money to clean their mess up. And even though the government, in theory, is an institution to protect people from this kind of blundering greed, Lois and the people of Love Canal were ignored.

Until Nixon’s best legacy, the Environmental Protection Agency, visited in 1979. An administrator noted the same things Lois and her organization were capturing. New York’s Health Commissioner did the same. He declared a state of emergency.

“Will I see age 7”

If you were pregnant or had children under the age of 2 in a specifically-defined area, the government was willing to pay for you to move, temporarily. But as soon as you were outside of those parameters, funding was done, and you were back in the vicinty. These were working class families who did not have the funds to move willy-nilly, and their houses, now, were essentially worthless. Their choices were limited.

The state condemned the school, and properties directly bordering the school. Jimmy Carter got involved, and directed emergency funds to address the issue. They hired geologists to try to figure out where the problem was, and how to resolve it.

To a room of environmental remediation professionals, what they undertook in the very early 1980’s was crude. It was the equivalent of early aviators strapping balsa wood planks to their arms and jumping off hills. It just wasn’t enough. And, like they still do now, they shrugged and accepted the status quo and said, ‘This is the best we can do.’

There are book fulls of history about Love Canal. Lois did her best to reduce it to an hour and a half presentation. I will not tell you the whole history, you can read much more about it yourself. It is the perfect case study of human error, and a malicious pride to hide that error. But Lois shared insights from an on-the-ground perspective that are not so easily transferred in history.

Lois Gibbs and the green chain link fence that still stands at Love Canal.

Like the green chain link fence. When they finally started work on the Love Canal site, the company and state erected a 10’ green chain link fence. For Lois, this became a symbol of the Us vs. Them mentality that had characterized their struggle. It became an ever-present reminder that there were things that the people in the Love Canal area did not know about Love Canal. Lois touched on the symbol many times, emphasizing how much of an imposing figure it became in the debate. There was the knowing, cover-your-ass rich people on the inside, and the unknowing, sick and poor people on the outside.

Facing down the pigs who protected the green chain link fence and not the people.

For me, far from Love Canal in time and space, the green fence had a metaphysical twinge. First, and most simply, it represented the need for scientists to communicate better. Later in the conference I watched a presentation by a gentleman with two masters degrees. I am sure he had all sorts of knowledge. But he had a debilitating stutter. His half-hour presentation should have taken ten minutes, and content suffered as a result. Knowledge is useless if you cannot communicate it.

Secondly, and more mystically, the fence appeared to me like a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut that we feel as necessary because of our increasingly superficial understanding of an increasing number of things. Think about the subway or train: I don’t need to think about standing back from a moving train, because there is a yellow line that does the thinking for me. These shortcuts of consciousness also represent a loss of presence, something that was evident by all the heads bent to their smartphones during Lois’ presentation.

But maybe the shortcuts are not such bad things. I mean I had met Lois, indirectly and unnamed, in grade eleven, in a one-page photocopy my World Issues teacher passed around (I still have it). He lectured on Love Canal in a simplified way, just enough for us to get the gist without getting caught up in what I now know are the complications of liability. Love Canal, when I was seventeen, was a shortcut of consciousness—a shortcut to my environmental consciousness. It was the same shortcut that had roused such bitterness and outrage the night before, at all the phonies who could not possibly be serious about doing good work for the planet.

But they were human. I am too (unfortunately or not). I am not my awakened teenage self who wanted to tear down fences. Sometimes, now, I put up fences too. “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself.” I am human. I hate shortcuts sometimes. I make shortcuts the rest of the time.

Love Canal was one of the sparks that lighted my path in the environmental sciences. It was invigorating and inspiring to hear about it first-hand from someone like Lois Gibbs. Lois has gone on to good work for lots of people who are fucked in similar situations. And I hope that I can say the same. I have that aspiration, at least. Those phonies probably do not.

Taking a Trip Through Love Canal: The Phony Night Before (Part One)

I had been half-drunk at a notorious Banff bar, packed shoulder to shoulder with people, when I realized with a very Salingeralian bitterness: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

I had an hour or so ago traded my business card for a handful of drink tokens marked with the party’s sponsor for the inaugural night of an environmental remediation technology conference. This conference spares no expense, and neither do the companies who compete for sponsorship. The individual entry fee is almost $1000 and it takes place at the bourgeoisie Fairmont Banff Springs—the place where, weeks later, our Prime Minister met with the President of France. For now, companies vie for each others’ business with ludicrous amounts of branded swag, five-star food, and expensive alcohol.

The next night would feature an absurd champagne-toasted four-course meal at the swanky Walhaus, a charming Bavarian-style clubhouse hidden behind the Fairmont (invite only, of course). I felt like Fitzgerald, drowning in bubbles and stuffing myself with unnecessary calories for the three hour event—which was only foreplay for the grander ‘networking social’ hosted by a laboratory in the Fairmont’s fancy event rooms, which featured live chefs, mounds of hot appetizers, free drinks and an elaborate ice sculpture that you could have your crantini poured through. That night would end in the after-party suite, hosted by…who cared at that point? It didn’t start ‘til 2 and went ‘til 5 AM…it became more of a sloppy alcohol den than anything professionals would be proud to say they soldiered through.

But that was the next night. By that time I came to understand the phoniness. It made sense in context, even if it didn’t make sense in this world.

That first night a co-worker had decided that the best bang for our free drink tokens would be top shelf tequila, which seemed very efficient for me. And in most situations, this is the kind of intoxication that is required for me to be fun in this kind of chaos. But this was different—I was with a former boss, co-workers, and vendors I worked with. It didn’t feel like the right time to debate the singular beauty of the word ‘cunt’, or other things I may talk about drunk.

And it was in this retreat, this self-protecting self-isolation, that I fell into that poetic observation that led me to fall into complete disillusionment and proclaim: “Everyone is so full of shit.”

Maybe not everyone, but many of the people there certainly were. One sales lady was perfect in her game, even though she had to shout over the bar’s cackling din…she knew when to get casual and talk about non-work things…because she knew building the relationship would build business…but she was mad, wasn’t she? She spoke to one of my co-workers, a handsome man who is far from shy—they leaned head to head across the small bar table, by all accounts flirting. Except that she was compulsively picking at her wedding ring and he was twisting his—I remembered what so many told me about this conference—that they are hotbeds for infidelity—for lies, I guess…and I wondered if her sales meant that much to her. If she would suck a dick just to build that relationship. But everyone here was doing the same. The sexual tension crackled through the air. But it was forced, wasn’t it? Those dolled up girls couldn’t really be interested in that fat bald man, could they? Was he really that funny?

I had to leave. I didn’t even use up all my drink tokens. I had had enough. I felt bloated and anxious with all the phoniness.

But the next morning there was a sunrise. It had a chance to start all anew.

Except that there was a clarity that came that morning, in the form of Lois Gibbs.

[ To be continued ]