Thursday, May 25, 2006

An Environmental Memorial

(photographs by Mr. Porteno)

Off to the place where I grew up - in Niagara Falls, New York this weekend. Memorial Day we remember tragedies and I assume we do this to discover ways of preventing them from happening again. In Niagara stands a memorial to one of the largest environmental disasters in US history.

The vast amount of water that surges from the upper to lower Niagara River provides the electricity that once fueled a thriving local industry. Love Canal was a project meant to capitalize on the city's famous hydropower capacity. Only one mile of the canal was completed. The big dig was sold to Hooker Chemical and the company dumped 22,000 tons of toxic waste into it, then back-filled it.

The land was later sold to the local school board, houses were built on and adjacent to the site, illness, birth defects and other tragedy ensued. In the late 1970's residents revolted and Love Canal became the first hazardous waste disposal case to draw national attention. Eventually Occidental Chemical (Hooker's parent company) spent $200 million cleaning up the place, Congress passed the Superfund law which now holds polluters accountable for their actions and 800 residents were relocated.

Last August I visted the Love Canal site for the very first time. The images of levelled neighborhoods were chilling. At first, the land appears empty...

On second glance you begin to notice the remains of neighborhood infrastructure - sidewalks, firehydrants, foundations.

On the edges of the disaster area now more than 200 new single family houses and a retirement community. What a sad legacy for a town that once held so much potential - in both the visual beauty of its natural resources and in the ability to harness their energy.

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