More than ten years have passed since a leaky dump in Niagara Falls, a city in upstate New York, became infamous as Love Canal. The site became a matter for public concern during the summer and autumn of 1978, when Governor Hugh L. Carey and President Jimmy Carter declared an emergency there and arranged to evacuate helpless families who had watched industrial sludge invade their back yards. Overnight a blue-collar community six miles from the cataracts of Niagara Falls became America's first toxic ghost town.
Love Canal, about which I reported in the December, 1979, Atlantic, was the harbinger of America's toxic-waste crisis. The situation led to the identification of many similar problems nationwide and to the creation of a $1.6 billion federal Superfund (now valued at $10.1 billion) for their remediation. At last count, 1,030 families had evacuated the Love Canal area during two separate emergencies, one in 1978, for the 238 households closest to the dump, and a second just a few months after publication of the Atlantic article, for 792 households on the periphery of the original danger zone. Roughly $150 million has been spent to sample the air, groundwater, and soil; survey health problems in the area; pay residents for their homes; move those residents to new homes; and halt and clean up the pollution. The costs were split between the state, which used emergency allocations as well as major shares of its health and environmental budgets, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which relied on Superfund money and funds administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.