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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship Spring 2000

URLs in this document have been updated. Links enclosed in {curly brackets} have been changed. If a replacement link was located, the new URL was added and the link is active; if a new site could not be identified, the broken link was removed.

Love Canal: Reminder of Why We Celebrate Earth Day

Frederick W. Stoss
Biological Sciences Librarian
Science and Engineering Library
fstoss@acsu.buffalo.edu

Carole Ann Fabian
Assistant Librarian
Educational Technology Center
cafabian@acsu.buffalo.edu

University at Buffalo
State University of New York


As we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, it is fitting to take a look some of the reasons why a 30-something activist's movement still deserves our attention. This article describes the efforts of a small, Upstate New York community in dealing with the impacts of chemical wastes buried, almost literally, in the center of its neighborhood. Love Canal is remembered on Earth Day for two reasons. First, we remember Love Canal for where we have been for a substantial portion of Earth Day's thirty years. Second we remember Love Canal as an icon of work for the environment that still needs to be done. This article also tells how one library has handled an unexpected success story, to keep a temporary exhibit "alive."

Love Canal is probably the country's most notorious and infamous hazardous waste site. It wasn't the first. It wasn't the worst. But it did grab headlines, draw attention, and stimulate scientists, industrial leaders, politicians, government officials, and grassroots activists.

August 2, 1998, marked the 20th anniversary of the evacuation of residents from the Love Canal neighborhood. The Science and Engineering Library at the University at Buffalo provided an exhibit recounting the chemical contamination of Love Canal and what has happened in the 20 years since citizens were evacuated from the site in August 1978. "Love Canal @ 20" was an unexpected international success. Within days of an announcement to our university libraries e-mail list, the university's weekly newspaper carried an article on the exhibit. The electronic "version" of the exhibit was featured in the September 1998 issue of American Libraries, and suddenly, we were receiving e-mails and phone calls from persons around the world wanting to come and see our exhibit and Love Canal (about 12 miles north of our campus). The original exhibit placed into a historical perspective the role information has played in the ongoing saga of Love Canal, and featured ongoing efforts in the Science and Engineering Library to provide services, collections, and an exhibit on topics such as environmental engineering, environmental geography, environmental chemistry, and environmental health and toxicology.

The real exhibit was such a popular event, that when it had to "come down," we transformed it into a CyberExhibit, which is still maintained off of our {library home page's exhibits site}.

About Love Canal

The Love Canal neighborhood is in the southeast section of the La Salle area of Niagara Falls, New York. William T. Love, an 1890s visionary and entrepreneur, sought to develop a planned industrial community, Model City, in the area. Waters from the Niagara River were to be routed around the Niagara escarpment (the other famous attraction of the region, Niagara Falls) to produce cheap hydroelectric power.

Model City never happened, but work on the canal to transport waters from the Niagara River did. In 1942, Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation (now Occidental Chemical) purchased the site of the Love Canal. Between 1942 and 1953 Hooker Chemical disposed of about 22,000 tons of mixed chemical wastes into the Love Canal. Shortly after Hooker ceased use of the site, the land was sold to the Niagara Falls School Board for a price of $1.00. In 1955, the 99th Street Elementary School was constructed on the Love Canal property and opened its doors to students. Subsequent development of the area would see hundreds of families take up residence in the suburban, blue-collar neighborhood of the Love Canal.

Unusually heavy rain and snowfalls in 1975 and 1976 provided high ground-water levels in the Love Canal area. Portions of the Hooker landfill subsided, 55-gallon drums surfaced, ponds and other surface water area became contaminated, basements began to ooze an oily residue, and noxious chemical odors permeated the area. Physical evidence of chemical corrosion of sump pumps and infiltration of basement cinder-block walls was apparent. Subsequent studies by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry would reveal a laundry list of 418 chemical records for air, water, and soil samples in and around the Love Canal area.

In April of 1978 the New York Department of Health Commissioner, Robert Whalen, declared Love Canal a threat to human health and ordered the fencing of the area near the actual old landfill site. In August, the Health Commissioner declared a health emergency at the Love Canal, closed the 99th Street School, and recommended temporary evacuation of pregnant women and young children from the first two rings of houses around the site. Within a week, Governor Hugh Carey announced the intended purchase of all "Ring 1" houses (later expanded to 238 houses in Rings 1 and 2). President Jimmy Carter simultaneously announced the allocation of federal funds and ordered the Federal Disaster Assistance Agency to assist the City of Niagara Falls to remedy the Love Canal site.

Amid this setting, individuals (most notably Lois Gibbs, Dr. Beverly Paigen, and Sister Margeen Hoffmann, OSF) and local neighborhood (such as the Love Canal Homeowners Association) and community groups (such as the Ecumenical Task Force of the Niagara Frontier) became concerned about the situation. Their primary concern was the actual extent of the chemical contamination and its impact on the health of Love Canal residents. Second, and perhaps more important, was the lack of readily available information to explain the science: the levels of uncertainty, political and corporate agendas, manipulation of the media -- in general an overall paucity of reliable information that would answer the simple question, "Is it safe?"

{Love Canal @ 20 -- From the Real to the CyberExhibit}

The SEL Love Canal @ 20 exhibit was in two parts. The first is a sample of newspaper headlines and articles from The Buffalo News, the Buffalo Courier Express, and The Wall Street Journal that stimulated and sustained local and national interest on the issue. Included with this local focus are other resources that were generated after the relocation of Love Canal residents, including items from the Ecumenical Task Force, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the New York Department of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, Time magazine, the U.S. Senate, and the Love Canal Homeowner's Association.

These resources are from the University Archives' Ecumenical Task Force: Love Canal Archives, ca.1979-1990, a 250,000+ page collection of information (portions of which are being converted into digital forms and made available via the Love Canal Archive site) related to the Love Canal. More information on this unique collection, the Love Canal Archive, is available including:

The second part of the SEL Love Canal @ 20 exhibit fast-forwarded to 1998, and featured a broad spectrum of information and data resources that are available in the Science and Engineering Library (SEL). A majority of these information resources did not exist at the time of the Love Canal incident. In some cases these data and information resources were created to fill the information and data voids that were identified as a result of Love Canal and related incidents. A "Selected Bibliography of the Love Canal" was prepared from books, reports, and documents in the SEL collections.

This site described how the printed literature of environmental engineering, toxicology and waste management has grown significantly in the wake of environmental disasters such as Love Canal. The publicity generated by citizens' action groups prompted governmental and research agencies within the scientific community to focus attention on these issues. As a consequence, the technical literature in these areas, including reference resources, standards, technical reports and periodical literature, has become more widely available. This bibliography is now in the CyberExhibit and is updated as new resources are added to the SEL collections.

We also provided an {inventory of Internet resources} related to the technical aspects of the environment which provides links to resources such as:

A compilation of "Love Canal Internet Resources" was developed and is maintained to provide full text (when available) online access to a variety of types of information: Online Articles; Announcements, Press Releases; Miscellaneous Image Files (maps, photographs, animations), and links to other "General and Environmental Health Internet Resources." The following is a list of those Love Canal-specific web resources.

Online Articles, Research Summaries, and Media Resources

Announcements, Press Releases, Miscellaneous

Image Files

If readers know of any Love Canal Web site, not provided on this list, please let us know and we will add it to our "Love Canal @ 20" Cyber Exhibit.

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