The ban on herbicidal warfare that involved Agent Orange was sparked by articles in The New Yorker under the byline of Thomas Whiteside. I called him for an informed viewpoint. “It’s an extremely serious situation if they find dioxin there,“ he said. “This is most serious. If they buried trichlorophenol, there are heavy odds, heavy odds, that dioxin, in whatever quantities, will be there too.”
After our conversation, I called Hooker. Its sole spokesman, Bruce Davis, executive vice president, was by now speaking to the media, but obtaining information from the firm was not the easiest, nor the most pleasant, of tasks. Often, questions had to be submitted days before they were answered; they would be circulated through the legal hands and sometimes sent on to Hooker’s parent company, Occidental Petroleum in Los Angeles. I posed two questions concerning trichlrophenol: Were wastes from the process buried in the canal? If so, what were the quantities?
On November 8, before Hooker answered my queries, I learned that, indeed, trichlorophenol had been found in liquids pumped from the remedial drain ditches. No dioxin had been found yet, and some officials, ever wary of more emotionalism among the people, argued that, because the compound was not soluble in water, there was little chance it had migrated off-site. Officials at Newco Chemical Waste Systems, a local waste disposal firm, at the same time claimed that if dioxin had been there, it had probably been photolytically destroyed. Its half-life, they contended was just a few short years.
I knew from Whiteside, however, that in every known case, waste from 2,4,5-trichlorophenol carried dioxin with it. I also knew that dioxin could become soluble in groundwater and migrate into the neighborhood upon mixing with solvents such as benzene. Moreover, because it had been buried, sunlight would not break it down.
On Friday, November 10, I called Hooker again to urge that they answer my questions. Davis came to the phone and, in a controlled tone, gave me the answer: His firm had indeed buried trichlorophenol in the canal—200 tons of it.
Immediately I called Whiteside. His voice took on an urgent tone. According to his calculations, if 200 tons of trichlorophenol were there, in all likelihood they were accompanied by 130 pounds of tetra dioxin, an amount equaling the estimated total content of dioxin in the thousands of tons of Agent Orange rained upon Vietnamese jungles. The seriousness of the crisis had deepened, for now the Love Canal was not only a dump for highly dangerous solvents and pesticides; it was also the broken container for the most toxic substance ever synthesized by man.
I reckoned that the main danger was to those working on the remedial project, digging in the trenches. The literature on dioxin indicated that, even in quantities at times too small to detect, the substance possessed vicious characteristics. In one case, workers in a trichlorophenol plant had developed chloracne, although the substance could not be traced on the equipment with which they worked. The mere tracking of minuscule amounts of dioxin on a pedestrian’s shoes in Seveso led to major concerns, and, according to Whiteside, a plant in Amsterdam, upon being found contaminated with dioxin, had been “dismantled, brick by brick, and the material embedded in concrete, loaded at a specially constructed dock, on ships, and dumped at sea, in deep water near the Azores.” Workers in trichlorophenol plants had died of cancer or severe liver damage, or had suffered emotional and sexual disturbances.