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Love Canal

When I read of the president’s proposed slashing of the EPA budget, I immediately thought of Love Canal.

When I was a kid, I spent countless days in the 93rd Street Elementary School swimming pool in Niagara Falls. During the school year, three nights a week, my friend Bonnie and I would walk from 70th Street Elementary School to 93rd Street for swimming lessons and free time, seeing how many laps we could swim underwater. I could never get past a lap and a half. Summer meant every day at the school pool in synchronized swimming practice and junior lifeguard training.

While we were building our young muscles and swallowing our share of pool water, tons and tons of deadly chemicals like dioxin, arsenic and benzene were percolating into the school.

It wasn’t until neighbors took note of bubbling ground pools, along with kids being born with birth defects and unusually high cancer rates, that an alarm was sounded. My Uncle Earl, a custodian at 93rd Street School, had to have his voice box removed from laryngeal cancer; three aunts had breast cancer; my grandfather, stomach cancer; my mother, pancreatic cancer; and two of my parent’s best friends also succumbed to pancreatic cancer.

Outraged, a local mother, Lois Gibbs, organized the Love Canal Homeowners Association and began a long battle with local, state and federal authorities to protect her family’s health and the health of others. Eventually, the school was closed and 833 people were evacuated in what has been called one of the nation's worst environmental disasters.

How did it happen?

For years, Hooker Chemical Company was using the canal to dump 82 different chemicals (11 known carcinogens). Eventually, the dump was covered over with soil and a new housing development rose from the dumpsite.

Eventually, corroding waste disposal drums broke through the ground and the rotting containers were leaching their poisons into basements and yards.

Gibbs’ efforts in the 1980s led to the passage of the Compensation and Liability Act, or Superfund, under President Jimmy Carter. The legislation was designed to assist communities clean up toxic dump sites around the country.

Last year, the village of Hoosick Falls was named as a potential Superfund site to assist with cleanup of PFOA in their drinking water. In April, Robert Allen, the village mayor, wrote to EPA head Scott Pruitt to ask for the Superfund assistance. “Time is of the essence,” he wrote.

Nonetheless, if the president’s 2018 fiscal budget is passed, Hoosick Falls and other communities struggling with toxic contamination of public water or farmlands may not get the federal help they seek.

Currently, the budget proposes cutting Superfund site dollars by 25 percent and cutting a program that restores former industrial sites contaminated by pollution by about 36 percent.

Still, these hazardous sites continue to pose a health risk for residents, according to a study released last month by researchers from the University of Missouri School of Medicine and the University of Florida.

So when I read of the proposed cuts to such efforts, I can't help but think of my own family and the tragedy of Love Canal. 

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Kathleen Phalen-Tomaselli is a features writer at The Post-Star. She can be reached at kphalen-tomaselli@poststar.com for comments or story ideas. 

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