The toxic town that vanished from the map

EVERY year millions of tourists throng together to experience the sheer majesty of the globally famous Niagara Falls.

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Supplied Love Canal then and now

EVERY year millions of tourists throng together to experience the sheer majesty of the globally famous Niagara Falls.

But just 15 minutes away, still within the US city of the same name, you’ll be lucky to see a soul.

Suburban roads, left to rot for 40 years, lie cracked and fracturing. Concrete filled drums stop cars from traversing them.

The simple wooden houses that once lined these streets have long gone, bulldozed into the dirt.

The sound of children playing at the local school is just a memory; the site where the school once stood is off limits, behind a metal fence.

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Love Canal lies just a few kilometres from the US side of the Niagara Falls. Source: Supplied

The township of Love Canal no longer exists. It should never have been built in the first place.

It’s almost four decades ago this month that the inhabitants began to flee. There was such fear some left homes that had scrimped and scraped to buy, never to return.

“One man reportedly fell to the ground weeping after pleading with officials to move his children,” Erika Engelhaupt wrote in a piece for

Chemical and Engineering News

(C & EN) in 2008.

Things had never been quite right in Love Canal. Odd, creepy incidents were almost the norm.

In the basement of some homes, black and red coloured liquid oozed through concrete walls; in one back garden a swimming pool spontaneously rose a metre out of the ground; pets routinely lost all their fur.

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Barrels block a road next to the fence that surrounds the uninhabitable area of Love Canal, New York State. (AP Photo/Carolyn Thompson) Source: AP

Locally, more girls seemed to be born than boys. That’s if babies were born at all — miscarriages were rife. Adults were ill too, fatal cancers were all too common.

The epicentre seemed to be the local primary school. Below the surface something was very wrong.

The 99th Street School was built on top of a burial ground. Not of bodies, this was a chemical cemetery — the last resting place of 22,000 tonnes of toxic waste.

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More than 20,000 tons of chemical waste was dumped in the old canal. Source: Supplied

The waste was stored in metal barrels, just metres below the surface in the covered canal from which the town took its name.

As they rusted away, the effluent leeched into the soil. Seeping out was a cocktail of chemicals. Carcinogens like benzene and dioxins, the latter of which was also an ingredient in the notorious Agent Orange defoliant and can decrease the likelihood of male births.

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The 99th Street School was the epicentre of the Love Canal disaster. Source: Supplied

Locals knew nothing about the danger beneath their feet. Astoundingly, education officials did and built the school anyway.

When residents found out, they wanted out, but couldn’t leave.

In 1978, Lois Gibbs, a Love Canal resident, became the face of the increasingly distressed homeowners.

“The banks wouldn’t give loans on those houses,” Ms Gibbs told

C & EN

. “You were literally stuck there.”

The canal was built to allow ships to bypass the treacherous falls in the 1890s. But the ambitious project ran out of money and was abandoned.

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Local Lois Gibbs became the face advocating for the residents and victims of Love Canal. Picture: Slowking Wikimedia Commons Source: Supplied

First it became a swimming hole, then a rubbish tip, then — in the 1940s — the Hooker chemical company began dumping its waste in the trench.

By the 1950s, the city was booming and a new school was needed. Love Canal was just the place.

Hooker sold the site for $1 and buried the chemicals. As part of the deal, the school agreed that the dump was now their problem.

Almost immediately there were problems. The school had to be moved 25 metres after uncovered drums were found during construction work.

The school bosses were unperturbed and construction continued. Soon houses sprung up until almost 1000 families lived above a waste dump.

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Keith Moyer, left, and his brother Darrell move boxes of belongings to a car as the family prepared to leave their home in the chemically contaminated Love Canal neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, N.Y in 1978. (AP Photo/MGO) Source: AP

The area’s history was not common knowledge. Sure, the air smelt a bit noxious; but that was the reality of living in a town with a large chemical industry.

Sylvia Jen Gondek’s home was in a nearby social housing estate.

“We kids would go over [by the canal], and you would see a bubble form — oh, I would say about 9 to 12 inches in diameter,” she told

C & EN

.

The bubbles formed when the chemicals breached the surface soil.

“It would open up sort of in slow motion, and then it would break, and then you would throw the stones in. It was a game we played.”

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Mark Zanatian, one of the children endangered who lived in Love Canal, waves a banner in protest during a neighbourhood protest meeting. (AP Photo/DS) Source: AP

In 1977-78 a particularly wet winter filled the canal and exacerbated the spill. The poisonous liquid leaked into gardens and homes. It burned its way through wooden fences, school kids came home with sludge on their uniforms and the sheer force of the liquid did indeed push pools into the air.

It was becoming harder and harder for the powers to be to ignore the chemical catastrophe.

In one home, a biophysicist said the basement was so toxic it was only safe to say below stairs for 2.4 minutes.

For almost two decades, the very same basement had suffered from the mysterious liquid oozing through its walls.

On August 2 1978, the New York State Health Commissioner advised pregnant women and young children leave immediately. But without financial help, few could afford to leave.

As fear gripped the suburb, the US Government finally agreed to relocate 240 families from the immediate vicinity of the canal.

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A toxic waste tank in Love Canal close to homes set to be demolished. (Photo by Joe Traver/Liaison) Source: Getty Images

Many more wanted to go. At one point two staff of the Environmental Protection Agency were taken “hostage” by angry locals.

Eventually, as the extent of the contamination became clear, more and residents were relocated.

In the end 900 families, around 6000 people, left Love Canal. The school and the houses were wiped off the map and the area fenced off.

The canal was capped, a treatment plant built and a synthetic barrier added to seal the sludge off from the outside world.

In 1983, the new owners of Hooker agreed to a $20 million settlement.

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Heavy equipment rumbles through the deserted streets of the Love Canal neighbourhood of Niagara Falls, in 1978, in preparation to demolish the houses. Picture: AP Photo/TK. Source: AP

Satisfied that the toxic waste was now safe, in 1990 new families were allowed to set up home in the unfenced off areas of Love Canal. The area was now called Black Creek Village.

Talking to the US’

ABC News

in 2008, 30 years after the first residents fled, George Kreutz said he had no idea about the town’s past when he bought a home there.

His house lay just a few metres from the sealed off zone. A green chalky residue had started to appear in his basement.

“I’d leave here in a heartbeat,” he told said pointing to what he believed was a toxic apple tree in his yard. “I can’t take my eyes off my children.”

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Once busy suburban streets in Love Canal now look like country lanes after all the house were demolished leaving the area to nature, and the chemicals below the surface. Source: Supplied

Ms Gibbs left Love Canal and went onto to set up

The Centre for Health, Environment and Justice

, spending her entire career in environmental activism.

“There is a misconception that it’s been cleaned up, but there’s still 20,000 tons of chemicals and no one has taken a single barrel out,” she told the

ABC.

“The waste that leaked into the soil is still there.”

benedict.brook@news.com.au

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