Lois Gibbs pointed to small signs on a fence surrounding the toxic dump in Love Canal.
The woman who got help for families sickened by chemical waste buried in her Niagara Falls neighborhood could not believe the innocuous message appearing 35 years later.
Instead of fiery warnings about the dangers of what lies beneath, the signs’ lettering read simply: “Private property – no trespassing.”
In the brisk morning air, Gibbs was furious, calling it “insane.”
“They work so hard to cover up Love Canal that private property looks like it’s some kind of gated community. This is not a gated community,” Gibbs said.
Gibbs returned Tuesday to Love Canal, 3½ decades since the first families were evacuated because of illnesses caused by exposure to toxic chemicals.
She came back to make sure people would never forget what happened here.
She and others had warned the government Love Canal would be impossible to contain. She and others unsuccessfully fought to keep the government from allowing the area to be repopulated.
On Tuesday, Gibbs listened to similar stories about residents getting sick.
“It is a shame, it’s sad, it’s criminal that 35 years later, people are saying ‘I’m sick; I can’t live in my home; I can’t get out of my home;’ and are in exactly the same place we were at the beginning of Love Canal,” Gibbs said.
People like Keith Boos, who moved to Love Canal 15 years ago. At the time, Boos said, he was told the area was safe.
But recent air tests inside his 98th Street home “showed excess levels of dangerous chemicals,” said the 43-year-old Boos, who said he suffers from a rare lung disease and has a cyst on his kidney.
His 43-year-old wife has had two brain surgeries for cysts on her pituitary gland, and is often fatigued and forgetful, Boos said.
Boos’ dog died earlier this month after developing a massive tumor that attached to its face.
“I’m afraid, unless something is done, the same thing will befall me or a loved one,” Boos said. “I want to protect my family, to allow my family to live in a healthy home, but I also want to make people aware of the situation.”
“How dare they say that the area is safe? This area can never be safe,” Gibbs said at a news conference near Colvin Boulevard and 100th Street.
Residents in recent years have complained of foul chemical odors and illnesses among people and pets. A multimillion-dollar state lawsuit has been filed claiming that the chemical landfill is leaking.
Local, state and federal officials have been adamant that the new neighborhood is safe and that the poisonous chemicals from Love Canal have been securely sealed. They also point to daily monitoring of the 70-acre landfill to make sure the chemicals aren’t spreading.
Earlier this year, Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster told The Buffalo News, “I wouldn’t have any problem living across the street from Love Canal.”
Also earlier this year, Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Michael J. Basile told The News that residents of Love Canal “love it here” and “know it’s safe.”
Hundreds of families were evacuated after then-President Jimmy Carter declared an environmental disaster in 1978. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent to clean up the neighborhood and make sure the chemicals were safely buried. A new neighborhood named Black Creek Village was developed.
Debbie Cerrillo-Curry was vice president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association during the disaster. Hers was one of the first three families that left Love Canal because, at the time, she had a child under 2 years old.
Cerrillo-Curry, who now lives in Rochester, peered Tuesday morning through the fence around the site that holds 20,000 tons of toxic waste, and pointed to where her house once stood. She remembers watching it get demolished.
She and Gibbs, old friends, walked down 100th Street arm in arm Tuesday. They recalled how there never were any small organisms like earthworms, flies or mice in the area when they lived there.
Gibbs, who runs the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in Falls Church, Va., described the bustling neighborhood that once existed around the former 99th Street School, where children walked back and forth to school.
Sometimes they came across what were called phosphorous rocks on the ground, which, if you threw them against a hard surface, would pop like firecrackers, Gibbs said.
On one occasion, a boy filled his pocket with these rocks. When he ran, they sparked a fire and his clothes burned. More than 70 percent of his body was burned, Gibbs said.
Environmental concerns among area residents have not ended with Love Canal. Other speakers during the news conference talked about concerns about other waste-handling sites in the area, including Covanta Niagara, a facility that burns garbage and turns it into steam and electricity, now planning to ship in garbage from New York City by train; as well as CWM Chemical Services, a hazardous waste landfill in Lewiston and Porter that is looking to expand.
Gibbs was asked what advice she would give to current Love Canal residents.
“The lesson we learned here is to turn up the heat,” Gibbs said, noting that the fight was a political and legal one.
She said that while some of the current problems are troubling, there were some positive things that came out of what happened here – the federal Superfund law, for one.
It was a fight that was won not just locally, but also on the state and federal levels, Gibbs said.
“It shows you that democracy works,” she said, “if people get involved.”