Love Canal byproduct is tech disaster response

BY SUSAN KIM | Niagara Falls, NY | September 21, 1998

Joann Hale was seven months pregnant in August 1978 when the federal government ordered pregnant women and children under three to evacuate their homes adjacent to the Love Canal off the Niagara River in New York.

The mandatory evacuation was issued after residents of the 230 homes and 250 apartments in the Love Canal community began noticing a dark ooze appearing in their sump pumps, basements, backyards, and swimming pools. They were replacing their sump pumps abnormally often due to rapid corrosion. Swimming pools were being eaten away from the top down. And, in a central field where the children played, sinkholes were opening up.

The Department of Health found that women had high rates of miscarriage and babies commonly had birth defects. When people sniffed the air, they smelled chemicals. And no wonder. More than 200,000 tons of chemical waste -- scientists later documented more than 200 different types of toxins -- were dumped or buried in the Love Canal before homes were built nearby in the 1970s.

When the blizzard of 1977 hit the east coast, the spring thaw caused the canal to overflow. It was then that an initial natural disaster caused still another technological disaster. "It wasn't like other disasters. When you drove through the neighborhood, you'd never know," said Hale. "It was visually okay because it was underground."

Initially the federal government ordered evacuation and provided relocation funding only for pregnant women and children under three. But when local churches, working through the Ecumenical Task Force for the Niagara Frontier, intervened, the state began evacuating whole family units. That meant Hale could be with her husband and her three-year-old daughter. "We lived in hotel, then an apartment," said Hale. "They boarded up our homes. So when we went to get our belongings, we had to ask to get into our own home. Most of the items were contaminated anyway."

Both of Hale's daughters were born with a benign tumors that, fortunately, were removed with little serious side effects. But her youngest daughter, now 19, has no enamel on her teeth. Born with brittle bones, she has broken more than 20 bones in her body. Hale's older daughter, now 23, has arthritis -- and has just had a baby of her own.

"I can't tell you how hard my daughter's pregnancy was for me, knowing of her exposure," Hale said. "I grew a lot of our food in our garden, and I canned everything. I essentially spoon-fed my children toxins without knowing it."

Hale's daughter had a healthy baby. But other children born to Love Canal residents were not so fortunate. Many were born with no teeth, or with three rows of teeth. Many had severe bone problems, tumors, or stomachs outside their bodies. Many were deaf, blind, or mentally retarded.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. Children of the Love Canal era are having children of their own -- still with high instances of birth defects. Hale has made it her life mission help people involved in technological disasters -- and to protect people in the first place. Hale works as a researcher for an environmental law firm, and is also a disaster response consultant for the Church World Service.

"I still get calls from people who say they just had a new grandchild born with birth defects," she said. "The Love Canal disaster simply isn't over for many people. In fact, new homes are being built in the area now. The area has been deemed safe -- but is it?"

Hale has also joined a new ecumenical task force that will prepare churches to respond to -- and prevent -- technological disasters. The Resource Unit on Technological Disaster, organized through the United Church of Christ in coordination with Church World Service, is forming to help launch the nation's most comprehensive interfaith effort to address technological disaster response.

"All technological disasters could have been prevented and involve acute or long-term exposure to hazardous substances and toxins such as radiation, chemicals, or pcbs through contamination of water, soil, and air," said Linda Petrucilli, director of the new committee, which is currently developing its full mission and purpose.

"We hope to eventually include an 800 hotline to service communities in technological disaster crises. The next step is preparing a manual specifically for this type of disaster," she said.

The committee has already found that technological disaster response involves different steps than response to natural disaster. First, residents must identify the problem, which, as Hale pointed out, is not always immediately evident. Then the stages of response are planned that map out both responsibilities and limitations of ecumenical, denominational, and government programs.

Technological disaster response also involves environmental advocacy with the goal of protecting people from tragedies like the Love Canal. According to Petrucilli, the new committee will provide "a significant opportunity for the United Church of Christ to live out its historic commitment to environmental justice."

"We as churches need to speak out," said Hale. "Churches need to do this. They should want to do this. We need to provide information, sources of help, and spiritual support."

Churches organizing response plans to technological disaster must also take a stance on environmental injustice, said Jim Price, a southeast regional field representative for the Sierra Club who also serves on the board of the Greater Birmingham Board of Ministries in Alabama -- a state that has seen many technological disasters, from chemical exposure to emissions violations.

"I don't consider these incidents disasters -- I consider them crimes," said Price. "Churches have got to get involved. I recommend that churches think about what is happening and adopt a strong stance on environmental justice. Churches already protect and nurture vulnerable people. Well, vulnerable people -- especially low-income and minority communities -- are facing environmental justice. There is a place for churches here."

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