7 August 1978: Love Canal declared a disaster

On this day in 1978, US president Jimmy Carter declared a Federal Emergency over contamination from toxic waste stored at the defunct Love Canal.

Boarded up house in the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls © Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
(Image credit: © Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

In the 1890s entrepreneur William Love attempted to build a canal from the Niagara River, initially to power local industries, and then to serve as the backdrop for a new township in New York. Both schemes collapsed, leaving a one-mile mini-canal. The pit was used as a dump from the 1920s and was later purchased by Hooker Chemical, which used it to store 22,000 tons of toxic waste.

In 1953, the fast-growing City of Niagara forced Hooker to sell the canal to the city for $1, with an agreement that the city would not be able to sue it for any damage. A school and housing wasthen built on the land surrounding the dump.Even during the school's construction, its architect warned that barrels of toxic waste were appearing. But the problem escalated during a very wet spring in 1972, when flooding caused the waste to spread through the ground.

By the mid-1970s the residents complained of horrible smells, pools of caustic water, a spate of birth defects and mystery child illnesses. Tests commissioned found huge levels of toxic chemicals in the water and land. In early 1978, New York State's health commissioner declared the area hazardous, recommending that 200 families be moved, and the outcry led President Jimmy Carter to declare a Federal Emergency.

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Around 900 families were ultimately relocated and a huge dispute arose over the liability. Regulators claimed that Hooker was negligent and did not fully disclose the amount of waste stored. Hooker (by then owned by Occidental Petroleum) claimed that the construction work caused the barrels to leak and that the 1953 sale agreement absolved it of any blame, but ended up paying $120m towards the costs.

Dr Matthew Partridge

Matthew graduated from the University of Durham in 2004; he then gained an MSc, followed by a PhD at the London School of Economics.

He has previously written for a wide range of publications, including the Guardian and the Economist, and also helped to run a newsletter on terrorism. He has spent time at Lehman Brothers, Citigroup and the consultancy Lombard Street Research.

Matthew is the author of Superinvestors: Lessons from the greatest investors in history, published by Harriman House, which has been translated into several languages. His second book, Investing Explained: The Accessible Guide to Building an Investment Portfolio, is published by Kogan Page.

As senior writer, he writes the shares and politics & economics pages, as well as weekly Blowing It and Great Frauds in History columns He also writes a fortnightly reviews page and trading tips, as well as regular cover stories and multi-page investment focus features.

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