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.

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.

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.

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