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This Borrowed Earth

This Borrowed Earth

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Published by Christine Catarino
This Earth Day check out our favorite picks for green reads!
This Earth Day check out our favorite picks for green reads!

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Published by: Christine Catarino on Apr 20, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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n the late 1970s and early 1980s, an area called Love Canal in NiagaraFalls, New York, became America’s most infamous toxic waste site.Media coverage at the time showed images of holes in backyards fill-ing with thick, black, substances; toxic chemicals entering basementsthrough sump pumps and walls; a grade school closing because of thedanger to children; angry citizens screaming at local, state, and federalofficials to do something; housewives taking officials hostage. Over 230families living next to Love Canal were evacuated in August 1978 becauseof the health risks associated with the over twenty thousand tons of toxicchemical waste that had been dumped in the canal by a chemical com-pany in the 1940s and 1950s. By 1980, when the dangers of the chemicalswere better understood, the evacuation was expanded to cover an evenwider area.The canal’s beginning was less notorious. It was dug in the 1890s by William Love as part of a proposed power scheme in the Niagara Fallsarea, but the project failed when it was only partially completed. Otherpower projects did succeed in harnessing the water from the Niagara River,bringing cheap hydroelectric power to the area. This, combined with alarge supply of salt, attracted the Hooker Electrochemical Company in1906. Hooker manufactured chlorine and caustic soda, used for bleaching,
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disinfectants, paper, and soaps, but the company did not make money forthe first several years.World War I changed Hooker’s prospects. Germany had monopolizedthe chemical industry, and when the war cut off supplies from Europe,Hooker and other American electrochemical plants leaped into the breach.By the end of the war, Hooker was producing seventeen chemicals andmanufacturing synthetic dyes, perfumes, and medications from coal tars.Net profits in 1918 were $1.34 million.World War II boosted Hooker’s fortunes, just as the First World Warhad. Hooker supplied chemicals to make smoke pots, colored flares, dis-infectants, military shoes, and lubricating oils to keep the machines of warrunning. After the Japanese captured 90 percent of the world’s naturalrubber supply, Hooker supplied dodecyl mercaptan to the government forthe production of synthetic rubber. Thionyl chloride and arsenic trichlo-ride produced poison gases. Hooker was perhaps most proud of, and secre-tive about, the chemicals the company manufactured for the ManhattanProject, which were used for making the atomic bomb.The expansion of business increased waste residues from the chemicalprocesses that had to be disposed of somewhere. By the early 1940s, whenHooker had little room left on its own plant property, it found Love Canal.The canal was fed by an artesian spring. Watercress, boysenberries, andapple and cherry trees grew along the property. Homes were built in thearea, and in the summer, girls and boys swam in the canal. In the win-ter, residents ice skated on the canal’s frozen surface. The canal stretchedthree thousand feet south to north, was about sixty feet wide, and was tenfeet deep.Hooker acquired the rights from successors to Love’s company to usethe canal and started dumping in 1942 in the northern section, betweenwhat is now Read Avenue and Colvin Boulevard. Fifty-five-gallon drumswere filled with solid and liquid residues at the Hooker plant, loaded ontotrucks, and dumped into the canal. Hooker constructed dams along a por-tion of the canal that was used for dumping, sometimes pumping waterout of the dammed-off section in order to dump in drums of the chemi-cals, and other times emptying the drums of chemicals directly into thewater. Hooker also dug pits adjacent to the southern section of the canalfor dumping chemicals. Some of these pits were dug within several feet of residential backyards.The drums, usually old and rusted, were dumped randomly, oftenbreaking open and spilling their contents. The residues filled the pits and
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