NIAGARA FALLS – The environmental crisis known as Love Canal its showing its ugly face once again.

More than three decades after the Niagara Falls neighborhood was discovered to be sitting on a simmering dump containing the world’s most toxic substances, the children who grew up there say those chemicals are causing them problems as they live out their lives elsewhere.

What’s worse, according to some, birth defects have recently popped up in areas outside the fenced-off dump site, causing some to raise questions about whether the federally regulated waste is really that secure.

“Well, this looks like 34 years ago,” former Love Canal resident Luella Kenny said Thursday. “I thought we had made advances.”

Kenny, whose 7-year-old son died of kidney disease in 1978, made brief remarks to more than 200 people who gathered Thursday in a fire hall not far from the dump site that became the birthplace of the national environmental movement.

Former Love Canal residents – many of whom lived in the Griffon Manor housing project – packed the building to hear from a team of high-powered environmental lawyers who have offered to take on their cause.

Steven J. Phillips, partner of the Phillips & Paolicelli law firm of New York City; Peter A. Kraus of the Waters & Kraus law firm of Dallas; and local attorney Christen Civiletto Morris addressed the crowd and met with residents, who were provided surveys about their health conditions and encouraged to sign on with the firms.

The residents are divided into two groups, said Phillips, who spoke to The Buffalo News before reporters were asked to leave the fire hall.

The first group consists of former residents who were children when federal authorities ordered the evacuation of the neighborhood in 1978.

Now living elsewhere and middle-aged, they tell stories of unusual physical ailments that have surfaced in recent years. Some say their own children were recently born with birth defects, and the group began to notice symptoms after attending a recent high school reunion.

Perhaps most troubling, though, is a new group of people who have emerged, claiming the toxic brew of hazardous chemicals has turned up in their neighborhoods outside the official containment zone – and caused problems in the development of their young children.

JoAnn Abbo-Bradley, of 90th Street, is among a group of residents now suing the city for $113 million, claiming a variety of health problems, including a baby born with a severe birth defect, were caused by a sewer main break last year.

One of the families claims a defective sewer line on Colvin Boulevard contained the same toxic chemicals associated with Love Canal – chemicals allegedly spread around by a worker who used a high-powered water hose to clean off the street last year.

Soon after, one of the families said, their son was born with clubfeet and heart defects.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation says the Colvin Boulevard pipe was buried deeper than other sewers recently repaired in the neighborhood, suggesting that a 1980s cleaning of the pipes “may not have been effective within this isolated location.”

The state says, however, that there is no evidence the actual Love Canal containment structure – made of clay and monitored around the clock – is leaking.

But the residents in the neighborhood, and the lawyers who have been aiding them in recent months, disagree.

Kraus told The News the lawyers have not had access to scientific testing by the city or by Occidental Chemical Corp., which was held legally responsible for dumping the toxic chemicals on what would become a neighborhood and school, and was ordered to pay $130 million for cleanup.

Phillips, though, said initial tests by the law firms and anecdotes from residents suggest there may be reason to believe that the chemicals have since leaked from the clay containment structure and that a polyethylene liner has begun to break down.

“We’re hearing reports that chunks of clay are floating off-site,” Phillips said. “All we know is there are substantial indications there are poisonous chemicals in the neighborhood outside the containment area.”

“There’s a lot of smoke,” he said figuratively. “We’re persuaded we’ll find quite a fire burning underneath.”