The Hazmat Battles Begin—Lois Marie Gibbs and Love Canal

Text excerpted from the book: PROTECTING THE PLANET-Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change (ISBN 978-1-63388-225-6)

by

Budd Titlow & Mariah Tinger

http://www.buddtitlow.com

Despite the slowdown in environmental actions precipitated by the oil crisis, discovery and management of hazardous waste sites made great strides in the last part of the 1970’s under the jurisdiction of the US EPA. First in 1976 came the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that empowered the EPA to regulate hazardous waste sites“from the cradle to the grave”. Infamously described as “ticking time bombs”, hazardous waste sites were thrust into the general public’s consciousness when multiple locations were discovered throughout the Nation.  

Most notably, in the spring of 1978, a 27-year-old housewife with no scientific training or activist experience stood up and took on the brutishly bullish world of conglomerated chemical companies.   When Lois Marie Gibbs discovered that her child was attending an elementary school built next to a 22,000-ton toxic waste dump that included dioxin—the most dangerous chemical compound on the face of the Earth—she went ballistic.  She immediately set about alerting her neighbors and organizing the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) in Niagara Falls, New York. 

When Lois Marie Gibbs discovered that her child was attending an elementary school built next to a 22,000-ton toxic waste dump that included dioxin—the most dangerous chemical compound on the face of the Earth—she went ballistic.

For a while, Gibbs listened to the bold-faced bluster of the culprit Hooker Chemical Company (now the international powerhouse Occidental Petroleum Company—OPC) until her face turned blue with repeated rage and anger.  OPC’s team of head muckety-mucks and hired gun consultants—plus their government cohorts—repeatedly lied to cover up the facts that their leaking chemicals were causing abominably abnormal miscarriage, birth defect, and cancer rates throughout the local families.  

Gibbs stood by her guns and in the end result scored a significant victory against the madding oppressive corporate forces.   She succeeded in convincing then President Jimmy Carter to relent and relocate 833 Love Canal families to safer homes outside of the toxic waste dump’s 36-square block cone of influence. 

RCRA was followed in 1980 by the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA).  CERCLA was better known as the Superfund Act because of the $1.6 dollar trust fund it set up.  And because of her unwavering efforts in finally securing victory at Love Canal, Lois Gibbs was appropriately dubbed as the, “The Mother of the Superfund Act”.

CERCLA enabled the EPA to aggressively pursue the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites.  In the process, the federal agency was able to sue the entities that were responsible and collect, then fund, reimbursements for cleaning up their toxic messes.  

CERCLA also opened the door to a new influx of private consulting firms that specialized in analyzing the contents of the toxic waste sites—including everything from leaking gas storage tanks to entire despoiled mountainsides and contaminated rivers.  

Hiring phalanxes of specially trained geologists, petroleum engineers, and hydrologists, these new businesses literally raked in money by developing and then employing a host of new toxic waste remediation techniques.  It was quite a business model.  For at least 25 years, these hazmat consulting firms could barely keep pace with the number of toxic waste sites that started popping up all over the country like kernels of corn in a pot of hot grease. 

Now let’s get back to Ms. Gibbs and her super-heroic activities.  Once all of her neighbor families had been moved and were safety settled into their new homes, Gibbs’ life changed forever.  While she was fighting her two-year battle for honesty and integrity, she was also contacted by other families across the country who were mired in similar toxic waste “no-man’s-lands”. Determined to help these other distressed people also set up grassroots organizations, Gibbs moved to Washington, DC and created the Center for Heath, Environment, and Justice (CHEJ).  Today, the CHEJ has helped establish 11,000 grassroots groups and—as Executive Director—Gibbs regularly speaks to communities about toxic chemicals and children’s unique vulnerability to environmental exposures.

For her diligent efforts on behalf of the environmentally oppressed, Gibbs has been featured in hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles plus featured on many television and radio shows—including 60 Minutes, 20/20, Oprah, Good Morning America, and Today.  CBS also produced a 2-hour prime time movie, entitled Lois Gibbs: The Love Canal Story. She has also received many awards for environmental accomplishments and was nominated for a Nobel Peace prize in 2003.

Driven by a strong sense of what is just and right in securing a safe environment for both her own family and those of her neighbors, Lois Gibbs provides one of the strongest prototypes for what a single individual can accomplish in the arena of environmental regulation.  She stuck to her cause and didn’t back down even in the face of severe intimidation and death threats from corporate and political power players.  The Climate Change movement needs hundreds of people with the moxie and pure guts of Lois Gibbs to bring our goals to fruition.

Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.


Author’s bio:For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America — provides the answers we all seek and need.Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

Author: Budd Titlow

BS, Biology-Chemistry, Florida State University, 1970 MS, Wildlife Ecology-Fisheries Science, Virginia Tech, 1973 btitlow@aol.com / www.agpix.com/titlow / www.buddtitlow.com For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place within nature’s beauty, before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. Protecting the Planet, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental champions among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — Coming Full Circle — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.

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