Second of two parts
NIAGARA FALLS – Want to buy – for just $40,000 – a two-bedroom, completely refurbished ranch home in a low-crime, suburban-style neighborhood … but just a few yards from a toxic dump containing nearly 22,000 tons of chemicals?
Don’t laugh. Hundreds of people have made the purchase.
Some remain satisfied with the deal. Others are having regrets.
In the decades since it became a national horror story, the neighborhood around the old Love Canal has sprung back to life with young families and new development.
But while some of the new residents claim in a $113 million lawsuit that chemicals are leaking from the landfill and causing them health problems, others wonder why the government permitted redevelopment in the first place.
And why anyone would ever choose to live there.
“I think it’s absolutely crazy,” former resident Luella Kenny said. “I don’t think anyone should have been moved in here.”
Kenny knows firsthand the dangers of living near the notorious toxic waste dump. She fled the area in the 1970s after her 7-year-old son died of a rare kidney disease that was linked to chemical-waste exposure. And she believes letting young families move into her old home – and the homes of her neighbors – was a grave error.
“There are a lot of areas of Niagara Falls that could have been rehabbed without danger,” Kenny said. “What are you trying to prove when you put a playground next to 22,000 tons of chemicals?”
Government officials say that playground – along with the senior citizen center and hundreds of houses surrounding the toxic dump – are perfectly safe. They defend the construction that has taken place over the past two decades.
“It’s probably the most tested piece of property on this planet,” said Michael J. Basile, spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Not only was it tested, but we had scientists, chemists, geologists and engineers reviewing data that came back, which led us to make the decisions we made.”
Those decisions included leaving most of the toxic chemicals found during the late 1970s on-site – in all, 21,800 tons of hazardous substances. State officials declared the neighborhood a disaster area in 1979, and more than 800 families fled the neighborhood. But a decade later, hundreds of others would begin to take their place.
New families move in
After cleaning up contaminated sections of the neighborhood, capping the hazardous material in an underground treatment facility and surrounding the dump with a chain-link fence, the federal government authorized the resettlement of the area around the landfill in the 1990s.
One side of the area around the fenced-in landfill was deemed too toxic for residential use, and today the streets there resemble a barren rural outpost.
But to the north and west of the 70-acre canal, there are neighborhoods.
More than 200 homes – in many cases, the same ones abandoned by Luella Kenny and her neighbors – were rehabilitated with government funds and put up for sale.
The area to the north of the canal was even given a new name: Black Creek Village.
Enticed by cheap housing prices and government promises that the area was safe, people such as Nicole Morales jumped at the offer. Morales, a local bank employee, had heard about the toxic history of the area. She knew she was taking a chance when she bought her ranch on 98th Street and moved in with her husband, their 12-year-old son and their 9-year-old daughter.
“People told me, ‘You know what’s there,’ ” she said. “It’s the choice you make and the chance you take.”
But like many others, she said the price – well below market value on a safe, suburban-like street – was right.
So last year, the Moraleses bought a house down the street from one of the world’s most notorious environmental waste sites.
“We got a good bargain on this house, too good to pass up,” she said. “Whoever worked on this house did it right.”
A dump in the yard
Some of the families who were living in Love Canal neighborhood back the 1970s are still there today.
Many were hesitant to leave unless they saw tangible signs of illnesses among their friends and families, and many are happy living near Love Canal to this day.
“We’ve been here 40 years, and we’re still alive and kicking,” said Betty LaFountain. “Some people, like we are, say everything’s been fine. Other people, they’ve had all sorts of problems.”
Nathan and Elena Korson count themselves among the latter.
The young family moved from California a few years ago so Nathan Korson, a military veteran, could find work.
Like other young families, the Korsons said they had never heard of Love Canal until after they bought their house.
When a neighbor notified them about the contents of the fenced-in landfill a few blocks away, Nathan Korson was “astounded,” the neighbor said.
The family’s worries grew into a nightmare when their first child was born in 2011 with club feet and other birth defects.
Soon after, the Korsons tried to sell their 92nd Street home. When they couldn’t find a buyer, they abandoned the home and fled to Pennsylvania. Their home remains vacant to this day.
The Korsons are one of three families suing the government for $113 million, claiming health issues in the neighborhood stem from a breach in the Love Canal containment system.
Government officials insist this is not the case. They say the Love Canal-era chemicals found in a city sewer pipe in February 2011 had been there for decades and pose no danger to families.
Real estate agents say most buyers from Western New York – unlike the Korsons – are aware of the history of the area.
“When I’m telling someone, I always say it’s in the Love Canal section,” said Bonnie Fitzgerald of Realty USA. “But obviously, I don’t push the issue.”
That’s because – as she and others pointed out – selling a home near Love Canal can be difficult, given the toxic history.
“The poor families that are selling the home, you don’t want to stigmatize it and then they never sell the house,” Fitzgerald said.
A new neighborhood
Today, Niagara Falls has scores of declining neighborhoods with crumbling houses and crime-ridden streets.
But Black Creek Village is not one of them.
The area in recent years has experienced a construction boom of sorts, as city agencies and community groups built:
• A senior housing complex across from the Love Canal landfill entrance. Built in 1999, the complex boasts 80 units.
• A $100,000 playground and walking trail, built in 1998 about 100 yards from the Love Canal landfill.
• A senior citizen recreation center where seniors gather each morning for coffee.
• A $1 million baseball and softball complex built in 2004 on the site of the former 93rd Street School, which was demolished along with 300 homes during two waves of evacuations.
“It has one of the highest property and occupancy rates in the whole city,” said Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who took office after the developments. “It is considered to be one of the most stable neighborhoods.”
Perhaps the most controversial project was the playground. It stands on the edge of the Love Canal landfill, separated from the landfill by a row of houses and a chain-link fence.
Samuel J. Giarrizzo was considered a neighborhood hero for helping see the project through. Today, his wife, Lillian Giarrizzo, has no regrets about the development.
“I don’t worry about Love Canal,” she said. “They monitor it on a daily basis. The DEC has been out and checked our property. They found nothing” wrong.
Federal officials say the site is the ultimate success story of environmental cleanup efforts.
“It was like a ghost town,” said Basile, of the Environmental Protection Agency. “You’d see five boarded-up houses in a row, and today, it’s a successful community. This shows what can take place after a black eyesore like Love Canal.”
Though government agencies and Occidental Chemical say the area is safe, associates of Lois Gibbs – the Niagara Falls housewife who became a champion of citizen activism after Love Canal – side with the families raising the questions.
“I’ve analogized the Niagara Falls mayors to that mayor in the movie ‘Jaws,’ ” said Stephen U. Lester, science director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in Washington, D.C. “There are sharks out there in the water, and he’s telling everyone that everything is OK. It’s not exactly the same as the shark in ‘Jaws.’ It’s not an imminent threat, but it’s a threat.”
The threat became a reality for JoAnn Abbo-Bradley and others after the sewer incident.
A 90th Street resident, Abbo- Bradley said her sons have developed “rare” illnesses since the sewer repair job went awry.
She bought her house 10 years ago after assurances that the area was safe. Now she regrets the decision.
“It’s nerve-wracking to keep sleeping in it, waking up in it, preparing meals in it, sending your kids out to play,” Abbo-Bradley said. “Every time the toilet backs up … you still worry because of where the source of the water is coming from.”
“We’re raised to trust the government from a young age,” she said. “And then when something like this happens, you wonder. I think they fooled us. I think they fooled us epically.”
Abbo-Bradley took a chance 10 years ago that Love Canal was a thing of the past.
She now wants a way out.
“I’m not under any law to tell that Love Canal is a few blocks away,” she said. “But I’m going to do that to another human being?”