Environment: A Nightmare in Niagara

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Long buried chemicals rise up to scarify a neighborhood

For the past two years, several hundred residents of Niagara Falls, N.Y., have watched and worried as chemicals, some buried more than 35 years ago, have bubbled to the surface in backyards and cellars. Last week their worst fears proved well founded. After a long investigation New York Health Commissioner Robert Whalen described the waste disposal site as "an extremely serious threat and danger to the health and safety of those living near it." He also recommended that all pregnant women and children under two leave the area at once.

Niagara Falls' nightmare goes back to 1942, when the Hooker Chemicals & Plastics Corp. began dumping wastes in Love Canal. Thousands of chemical-filled drums were dumped directly into the receding waters of the unused canal or buried in the mud along its banks. In 1953 Hooker sold the site, which covered 16 acres, to the Niagara Falls board of education for $1.

For at least a decade, the buried chemicals were no problem. But by 1976, after years of abnormally heavy rain, the chemicals, leaking from corroded containers, began to rise. Pools, some bubbling like witches' cauldrons, appeared in low-lying backyards; fumes seeped into cellars. So far, more than 80 chemicals have been found in the dump site itself. At least ten have been identified in homes bordering the old canal, seven of them known to cause cancer in animals. One, benzene, has been linked to leukemia in humans. Women living in the area have suffered 50% more miscarriages than would be expected. There is also a high incidence of birth defects among children; of 24 youngsters in the southernmost section of the neighborhood, health officials report four are mentally retarded. Local residents are doubly upset by the suggestion that they leave the area because their houses are now virtually unmarketable, and without money to rent elsewhere, most of them simply have no place to go.

They need help but where is it to come from? The Hooker Corp., which violated no laws at the time it was dumping, has helped to finance the investigation and the construction of a ditch to drain the dump, but acknowledges no liability for damages. City officials are unsure of their power to clean up what is, for the most part, private property.

New York's Governor Hugh Carey has appointed a committee, composed of state health, environmental and transportation officials, to look into mopping up the mess and helping those affected by it to relocate. Carey and Democratic Representative John LaFalce are also seeking federal help.

Washington has already helped prevent the creation of new Love Canals by enacting strict laws regulating the disposal of toxic substances. But, says Environmental Protection Administration Regional Director Eckhardt Beck, "we've been burying these things like ticking time bombs. They'll all leach out in 100 or 100,000 years." There are at least 30 sites like the Love Canal in New York alone. Nationally, according to EPA officials, there are more than a thousand.