NIAGARA FALLS – The weird popping and hissing sounds coming from their basement offered the first sign that something was wrong.

Then a foul chemical smell filled the first floor of Melanie and Zachary Herr’s home, burning their eyes and nostrils.

Next, their dogs and cats started vomiting. In the basement, the cap blew off a sewer pipe.

“I’m getting out of here,” Melanie told her husband that day in February 2011, “and I’m taking the kids.”

The Herrs live on 93rd Street in Niagara Falls, about a quarter mile from the infamous Love Canal, the toxic dump that, in the late 1970s, became a national symbol of the dangers of hazardous wastes.

Nearly 25 years after the state and federal governments declared that the Love Canal neighborhood was a safe place for people to live, even though 21,800 tons of toxic waste remain buried there, new questions are being raised.

Is history repeating itself at the Love Canal?

Is the neighborhood really safe?

The Herrs and two other families have filed a $113 million state lawsuit, alleging that the chemical landfill at Love Canal is leaking and that people in the nearby neighborhood have become ill from those chemicals.

More than 300 additional families – current or former residents of the repopulated Love Canal neighborhood – are talking about joining the lawsuit, according to the attorneys who filed the legal action.

“We have reason to believe that Love Canal-era chemicals have migrated onto our yards and into our homes. We have suffered property damage and serious ongoing health problems,” the three families wrote in an October 2011 letter to state and federal officials. “The matter is urgent.”

Local, state and federal officials are adamant that the new neighborhood is safe. They say the poisonous chemicals from Love Canal have been securely sealed. The chemicals are not spreading, they say, and there is daily monitoring of the 70-acre landfill where the chemicals are buried.

“I wouldn’t have any problem living across the street from Love Canal,” said Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster, who does not live in the Love Canal neighborhood.

The EPA in 2004 removed Love Canal from its national list of Superfund waste sites, declaring that “all cleanup work at the site has been completed” and calling the neighborhood “a thriving community.”

“People love it here," said Michael J. Basile, a spokesman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “They know it’s safe. ... It’s monitored on a daily basis. ... If we ever did discover a problem, we’d see that it was fixed immediately.”

Buying into Love Canal

The Herrs said they knew a bit about the history of Love Canal when they bought their home – within sight of the landfill – at the bargain price of $40,000 in February 2002.

They knew that hundreds of families were evacuated after then-President Jimmy Carter declared portions of the neighborhood an environmental disaster in 1979. Once the families moved out, hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to clean up the neighborhood and make sure the chemicals were safely buried.

The next step was to refurbish about 300 abandoned homes near the toxic landfill, while government agencies also encouraged other development in the neighborhood, including two playgrounds, a baseball-softball complex for youngsters, an 80-unit senior apartments complex and a senior citizens activities center.

The neighborhood was also given a new name: Black Creek Village.

Finally, the neighborhood was ready for resettling, and a well-publicized campaign began to sell the refurbished houses to new occupants.

The Herrs were among those who moved in.

They said a real estate agent repeatedly assured them that all the toxic waste was safely stored underground at the landfill and that government agencies had checked the neighborhood for chemical contamination and declared it completely safe.

“They said it was the safest place in the Falls,” Zachary Herr recalled.

Getting a $40,000 home in “move-in condition” in a suburban-looking, low-crime neighborhood close to a playground seemed too good to pass up, the Herrs said.

But after nine years in the house and the basement sewer incident in February 2011, their optimism changed. The Herrs wonder if they made a mistake that put their children in danger.

Melanie Herr and the couple’s two children moved to a relative’s home for about a year after the sewer incident. They have since moved back.

For years, Melanie Herr, her son and daughter have experienced a variety of health problems, including asthma, severe headaches and skin rashes.

Another family that lived a few blocks away had worse trouble. Their baby boy was born with clubbed feet and other birth defects. That family, the Korsons, abandoned their home in Niagara Falls and moved to Pennsylvania last year.

“It’s horrible being here. You constantly worry about your kids,” said Zachary Herr, 36, a technician with a local biomedical company. “I feel like I’m stuck here. I can’t in good faith sell this place to someone else.”

Monitoring the site

At first glance, the 70-acre landfill of Love Canal looks like a sprawling, grass-covered park, with gently rolling hills and small trees. It’s not unusual to see people walking their dogs in the neighborhood, just outside the landfill.

A closer look reveals several small buildings and hundreds of pipes, air-monitoring devices and monitoring wells all over the property, which is surrounded by a tall, chain-link fence.

Glenn Springs Holdings, a subsidiary of Occidental Chemical, monitors the landfill with computers, 24 hours a day. Glenn Springs pays another company, Conestoga-Rovers & Associates, or CRA, to run the landfill.

“The health and safety of the surrounding community and neighborhood is our No. 1 priority,” said Eric Moses, a Glenn Springs spokesman.

On the site, wastewater is pumped into huge metal tanks and filtered twice through carbon before being channeled into the city sewers. The water is then processed again at the Niagara Falls Water Treatment Center and discharged into the Niagara River and, ultimately, it tumbles over Niagara Falls.

Each year, the landfill processes 3 million to 6 million gallons of “leachate” – water that becomes contaminated with chemicals as it leaches through the Love Canal property. The amount of leachate depends on the amount of rain and snow in a given year.

The filtration system can process more than 150 gallons of leachate each minute.

One employee is usually on duty at the landfill, watching computers that show what is being measured by monitoring wells throughout the landfill, according to Glenn Springs and Occidental officials.

As long as the monitoring wells show that leachate is draining toward the center of the landfill – rather than out toward the surrounding neighborhood – the company says it can be sure the landfill is functioning properly.

There never has been any indication that leachate is flowing away from the landfill toward the neighborhood, according to these officials, and the company said it has never found any holes or cracks in the thick cap of clay or the plastic liner that covers the toxic waste.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation works closely with Glenn Springs, company officials said. And if state inspectors ever have doubts or questions about the operation, they can come in, unannounced, and inspect the landfill.

The company hires laboratories to examine samples taken from the monitoring wells each year. At times, the state DEC has also hired laboratories to do independent examinations of the same samples, but that independent testing hasn’t been done in the past two years, company officials said.

Dyster, now in his second term as Niagara Falls mayor, said he is satisfied that the landfill is being run properly.

“It’s very closely monitored. There are a lot of eyes watching,” Dyster said.

But something happened in early 2011 that made a lot of people question whether everything was running as smoothly as government officials said.

Toxins found in 2011

In January 2011, poisonous waste was discovered in a Colvin Boulevard sanitary sewer just outside the landfill.

The city had hired a local contractor to clean up sewers and storm drains in the residential neighborhood near the landfill. It was supposed to be a routine maintenance job. Workers dug a 50-foot trench near Colvin and 96th Street, near the city-run LaSalle senior citizens center.

But while inside the trench, the workers found sediment contaminated with toxic chemicals, including some so caustic that they disintegrated the shoelaces of one worker. The chemicals found at the site “can be directly linked” to the Love Canal waste site, the Herrs’ suit asserts.

One of the toxic materials in the trench was an oily, poisonous substance called NAPL, or non-aqueous phase liquid. Another was trichlorobenzene, a chemical formerly used in solvents and pesticides.

Rather than calling immediately for a qualified environmental cleanup crew, workers used high-pressure hoses to try to clean up the material, according to the lawsuit.

Workers also tried to “flush” the material down sewers and storm drains. Those actions resulted in “dispersing the contaminants even further onto and into the property and homes” of nearby residents, the Herrs’ lawsuit asserts.

After that, the trench was left open “for weeks,” the lawsuit alleges.

It was during that time that the incident occurred in the Herrs’ basement in February. Other homes in the neighborhood were also contaminated, the lawsuit alleges.

The fact that the oily substance was found in the sewer line indicates that dangerous substances are escaping from the Love Canal landfill, the Herrs and their attorneys contend.

State disputes the link

State and federal officials offer a different explanation.

Yes, there are chemicals on the Herrs’ property and two others, but the levels found at these three homes are “typical” for urban neighborhoods, according to officials of the DEC. And the levels are within acceptable limits for properties near a remedial cleanup site, the state says.

The section of sewer line where workers found the toxic chemicals was just one of 17 sections recently repaired in the neighborhood. No contamination was found in any of the other 16 sections, the DEC said.

The NAPL contamination appears to have been isolated to that one section of sewer, which was more than 20 feet below the surface, the state agency said.

That material probably had been there for years, according to the DEC and the EPA.

In addition, after the toxic material was found in the trench, a new monitoring well was installed nearby. No additional toxic material has been found in that well, the DEC said.

The toxic material “appears to be some residual material from decades ago, and there was no evidence that the chemicals found in the sewer bedding on Colvin ... had migrated from the Love Canal site since the containment system was installed,” the state agency said after an investigation.

The sewer incident caused no lasting danger to the public, according to state and federal officials.

But some people remained skeptical.

Suspicions remain

The Herrs and two other families sent a 20-page letter to the EPA in October 2011. Their letter referred to strange, unsettling things that allegedly occurred in the neighborhood after the sewer incident:

• Several neighbors had pets that developed unexplained lumps on their bodies, infections and cancers. One neighbor has had four dogs or cats die of cancer.

• White foam was sometimes seen on roads, sewers and drains, and neighbors reported seeing chemicals in puddles.

• High concentrations of toxic substances were found at the homes of the three lawsuit plaintiffs.

• Workers from the city and state were repeatedly seen digging, sampling the dirt, removing trees, cleaning sewers and flushing out hydrants at the senior citizens center adjacent to the landfill. Some neighbors complain that these incidents are never explained to them.

An EPA official responded in a letter to the families last year.

Those neighborhood incidents were thoroughly investigated, and it was determined that the Love Canal containment system is operating “properly and effectively,” the EPA said.

Yet many people who spoke to the legal team that filed the Herrs’ lawsuit believe they have experienced serious health problems as a result of living near Love Canal, according to Steven J. Phillips, one of the lead lawyers in the lawsuit. Phillips, though, would not provide numbers or specific information about the hazards.

But the health problems, Phillips said, include babies born with birth defects and adults with serious illnesses such as cancers or heart problems.

Much more information about health problems will be made public as the lawsuit proceeds, said Phillips, a New York City attorney who specializes in environmental safety.

“There are grave questions about how the remediation of Love Canal was designed and implemented ... and about the monitoring,” Phillips said. And government monitoring of the site has been “lax, sloppy, incompetent and possibly criminal,” Phillips said.

Environmental activist Stephen U. Lester, who has done extensive research at Love Canal over the past 35 years, agrees with Phillips. He is the science director of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, a Virginia-based not-for-profit environmental activism group founded by Lester’s wife, former Love Canal resident Lois Gibbs.

The government never should have allowed people to resettle in a neighborhood surrounding a landfill full of dangerous chemicals, Lester said.

Many people who moved into the neighborhood – such as the Herrs – were not made fully aware of the dangers, he said.

Phillips also calls attention to the group monitoring operations at the landfill. When The Buffalo News asked state and federal officials for safety reports on the landfill, the government agencies turned over reports compiled by Glenn Springs Holdings, the very company that runs the landfill.

“There’s an ancient legal doctrine called ‘putting the fox in charge of the hen house.’ It’s not a good situation,” Phillips said. “There’s nothing wrong with letting the fox file reports with the government, but you darn well ought to have some independent verification and scrutiny by the government.”

State officials work closely with Glenn Springs, according to state DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, and they are constantly staying on top of the situation and making sure the reports from Glenn Springs are accurate.

“DEC staff actively oversees the long-term operation and maintenance of the facility, through site visits and the review of operation monitoring reports,” DeSantis said. “In addition, the [federal EPA] also conducts a review of the Love Canal remediation every five years.”

Video: Watch EPA spokesman Mike Basile describe the toxics at Love Canal

Some people who live in the neighborhood say the lawsuit is nothing more than a money grab, engineered by lawyers who hope to make millions by exploiting Love Canal’s past.

That drew an angry reaction from the Herrs.

“There is no amount of money that would make me want my kids to be sick,” Zachary Herr said.

Those people “will feel different when something happens to them,” his wife said.

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MONDAY: Why they moved in