First, some good news about the 1970s Love Canal environmental disaster in New York: long-term studies have shown no increase in rates of cancer or birth defects among the area’s residents. That’s welcome news, even though toxic chemicals were released into the environment, homeowners were frightened, dislocated, and suffered large losses of property value.
Now the bad news: Love Canal is a classic example of bad journalism combined with bad philosophy that four decades later continues to infect our popular thinking and public policy.
The story begins in the 1940s, when Hooker ElectroChemical Corporation acquired some land in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls, which it intended to use as a dump for by-products from chemical manufacturing. Before the 1940s, the U.S. Army and the city government had used the site as a dump. Hooker tested the site and judged it safe, and inspectors from both local and state government approved the site’s use and issued appropriate permits. Hooker then used it until the early 50s, at which time it sealed the site with an impermeable clay covering and left it alone.
Fast forward two decades to the 1970s, when disaster struck. Some Love Canal residents noticed seepage into their homes and notified the authorities, who identified the seepage as toxic chemicals. The residents were naturally scared and outraged. Reporters converged upon Love Canal and the story went national and international. President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a disaster area and about 900 families were relocated.
Now for the importance of journalism and philosophy.
In the press, Hooker faced widespread condemnation. Ralph Nader denounced it as a “callous corporation” that dumped chemicals without caring about public safety. A 1979 Atlantic Monthly article asked whether we can expect privately-owned corporations to act responsibly and suggested that their profit motive makes them care more about money than health. Hooker soon faced over $2 billion in lawsuits. The Environmental Protection Agency quickly enacted many new rules about how corporations handle waste. In 1980 the U.S. Congress approved Senator Al Gore’s a $400 billion Superfund bill to address the nation’s toxic waste sites.
And in large part because of Love Canal, an environmental philosophy became entrenched in our public consciousness: Uncaring, profit-hungry corporations are poisoning our environment, causing birth defects and cancer, and only government can save the day.
That abstract narrative, however, in the case of Love Canal, is almost perfectly the opposite of the truth. Here’s some more important history.
Also in the early 1950s, the city of Niagara Falls’ Board of Education wanted some land in order to build a new school. It liked the Love Canal site and approached Hooker and asked to buy the land. But Hooker refused to sell. The corporation pointed out that the site contained toxic chemicals and so was inappropriate for a school. But the Board of Education, as a government agency, had the power of politics on its side — in this case the power of eminent domain. So it overrode Hooker’s refusal by threatening to have the local government condemn the property and force the land sale.
So Hooker sold the property to the city for one dollar. But in the sale contract — and loudly in other public forums — Hooker made explicit the property’s history as a dump site, expressed its strong opposition to the city government’s plans, and specified that under absolutely no circumstances should the site’s clay barrier be breached.
Even so, the city government then developed the property. It had sewer lines put in and sold some of the land to builders, who constructed homes upon it. And, as it had originally wanted, the government proceeded to build a school there.
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 some critics argued that Love Canal was being mishandled and the wrong lessons were being learned.
But the power of the Bad-Corporations/Good-Government narrative is strong indeed. Even now, four decades later, it prevails. A USA Today journalist in 2013 (!) tells the key part of 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.” No mention of the school board and the government’s ability to force the sale.
But Love Canal would not have happened without (1) the political power of eminent domain and (2) the government officials’ being confident that they would not be held liable if anything went wrong.
The issue is serious because we live in a science-and-engineering-intensive society. There are many benefits to living in a high-tech society — but there are also many risks, including hazardous waste. How do we handle the dangerous chemicals that much of our lifestyle depends upon and keep our environment safe and beautiful? We must learn the right lessons from big mistakes.
So we should be asking, as a result of Love Canal:
* Did Love Canal lessen any government’s ability to acquire land through eminent domain?
* Were any of the politicians or other government officials prosecuted for criminal neglect?
* Were any forced to pay damages?
* Did any go to prison?
The answers are: no, no, no, and no.
In the Love Canal case, the private corporation behaved responsibly — precisely because of its profit motive. The officers of the corporation were likely normal human beings who do not want to poison others, but the profit motive gave them an additional incentive to act responsibly: they wanted a positive business reputation, and they wanted to avoid expensive lawsuits.
And in the Love Canal case, the public government behaved irresponsibly — precisely because its officers had little accountability, either monetary or legal.
Our bad journalism and our bad environmental philosophy have reinforced the irresponsibility. The subsequent history of the case has been to punish the party that behaved responsibly. Hooker and Occidental Petroleum, the company that acquired Hooker in 1968, have been forced to pay hundreds of millions of dollars in damages and have been pilloried in the press and suffered much public condemnation.
And the subsequent history has been to let the irresponsible party off the hook. The members of the Niagara Falls school board and their enablers in the city’s government have largely been able to avoid both public scrutiny for their role and having to pay the financial costs of the lawsuits and the cleanup.
The point is not that private corporations always behave well or that governments always behave badly. The point is that all power should be accountable.
Especially from the Love Canal case, we should learn that the power of governments to coerce land sales should be scrutinized. Tens of thousands of local governments around the country still have that largely unchecked power of eminent domain, and tens of thousands of politicians still want to build schools and enhance their tax revenues.
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Stephen Hicks is the author of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault and of Nietzsche and the Nazis. He blogs at www.StephenHicks.org.
[Originally published at EveryJoe.com.]