24 May 2008

Women Pioneers for the Environment

Lois Gibbs speaking at a Citizens Clearing House for Hazardous Waste rally 1990 (source)

'Women Pioneers for the Environment' is a wonderful book published in 1998 by Mary Joy Breton. In it she recounts courageous examples of women who paved the way by standing up for the environment in difficult times and places. As quoted in the Preface, "Where man had gone into the wild armed with guns, the women went in armed with nothing more than goodwill, tact, and delicacy, and succeeded in making many new discoveries where generations of men had failed." From the chapter ‘Those Know-Nothing Housewives’ we learn about Lois Gibbs who organized the victims of Love Canal.

Map showing location of canal (source)

Hooker Chemical Corporation dumped 21,800 tons of toxic waste over a ten year period into an abandoned canal in the city of Niagara Falls, New York. They then covered it up and sold it to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1.00 back in 1953. An elementary school and neighborhood were eventually built on the site. By the mid-1970’s a choking stench became apparent and sludge began oozing out of the ground. Chemicals began leaking through basements and into backyards. The city and county authorities failed to act, most likely because of the large presence and influence of Hooker Chemical in the community. Lois Gibbs, whose family lived in the neighborhood, had a son, Michael, who began suffering from asthma, epilepsy, and liver, urinary, and respiratory problems after starting his first year of school. After her son was denied a transfer to another school, she decided to take action and went door to door to collect signatures for a petition.

Ecumenical Task Force map of Love Canal area pinpointing areas of health, environmental and vegetation hazards, 1981 (source)

She discovered that many others also seemed to be affected. She conducted a survey of the residents and presented it to state authorities, which was discounted because she was a housewife. She presented her petition to the State Health Department. She recalled, "I realized that I had to know what I was talking about…I was intimidated by the meeting—me, Lois Gibbs, a housewife whose biggest decision up to then had been what color wallpaper to use in my kitchen." (page 120) Finally, in 1978, the New York State Health Department conducted an inspection and determined that the area was unsafe. "The report documented that at Love Canal, between 1958 and 1975, five out of every twenty-four children had been born with defects—including deformed ears and teeth, deafness, cleft palates, and mental retardation, as well as abnormalities of the kidneys, heart, and pelvis. The report also substantiated the abnormally high rate of miscarriages in the community (50 percent higher for women living there). The Health Department warned residents to stay on the sidewalks, not to eat vegetables grown in their own gardens, and to stay out of their yards and basements." (page 120)

Lois Gibb's home, undated (source)

Reporters came to Gibbs for statements; she made national headlines, appeared on television, and organized rallies to increase awareness of what was happening. The State decided to purchase the homes of 237 families living closest to the dumpsite, allowing them to relocate. This left 710 families, including Gibbs, to endure for two more years. Meanwhile, they continued to live through this while mail carriers wore gas masks to deliver their mail. In May 1980, President Jimmy Carter declared the community a federal disaster area for the second time and signed the order providing funds to relocate all the remaining residents. The US Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Hooker Chemical and through the effort of Lois Gibbs, the national conscious of hazardous waste began, beginning with the Federal Government’s Superfund program and the cleanup of this and other dump sites around the country.

President Carter signed Love Canal Bill with Lois Gibbs 30 Sep 1980 (source)

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