Lois Gibbslois5

Environmental Activist

Lois Gibbs has been shot at, insulted, threatened and harassed in her twenty one years as an environmental activist. But the mother of Superfund, legislation that seeks to clean up hazardous waste sites around the nation, isn't easily intimidated.
"Although people may shoot at me, if they wanted to hit me, they would have years ago. But I'm still fearful that they are bad at missing me," said Gibbs, who established the Center for Health, Environment and Justice in 1981 to help other communities fight for their right to a safe environment. "It's really hard-- [to get over your fears] I was that way at Love Canal but you just have to get up and do it."
lois4 It all started in 1978 when she discovered that her neighborhood in Love Canal, NY was located on a 20,000 ton chemical waste dump. Lois and her husband moved to Love Canal, New York in the mid-seventies to raise their young family and settle in what they thought was a picturesque, working class neighborhood near the Niagara river. Mr. Gibbs worked for Goodyear Chemical Company, and Lois stayed at home with their two infant children.
Gibbs was baffled by the array of illnesses such as epilepsy, asthma, and urinary track infections that hospitalized her children every week, especially because of their healthy family history. When Niagara Falls Gazette reporter Michael Brown published a series about the 20,000 ton chemical waste dump in town, Lois began to realize why her children were sick.
When she learned that her children's elementary school was located directly under large amounts of toxic waste, she begged the School Board to move her children to another school. The School Board denied her request because it felt that every student would want to move if one was granted the privilege.
Lois, who had no formal education or prior knowledge of environmental issues, began to ask the government to clean up or relocate residents in 1978. When they refused to listen, she organized her neighbors into the Love Canal Homeowners Association.
"They made me mad, and it wasn't a matter of I'm going to go out and do good. I was just furious and frightened," said Gibbs in describing her motivations to fight.
The state of New York closed the local elementary school and purchased the 239 homes closest to the dump. Gibbs fought for two more years until Jimmy Carter delivered an emergency declaration moving nine hundred families out of the area in 1980. Congress also enacted Superfund legislation in December of 1980 to help clean up other toxic waste sites around the nation.
After her ordeal at Love Canal, Gibbs received thousands of calls from people around the nation also facing environmental hazards. In order to help other people, she established CHEJ. "I can provide something to people in a way that comes from personal experience I walked the walk and did it," she said.
Her organization teaches community groups and individuals the basics of advocacy such as writing letters, meeting with public officials and talking to corporations. She also helps people understand technical information in environmental studies.
"People get inspired by their own actions and all we really do is give them the path and frame it in a way that they see each step as a major victory," said Gibbs.
While Gibbs is proud of her work and the progress of the environmental movement, a big setback for her came in 1988 when the state of New York decided to build low income housing in parts of the once-contaminated Love Canal. Gibbs warned residents that the canal will continue to leak and affect homes, which were sold to mostly young couples below market prices, and people's health. Despite her warnings, she has pledged to help people if they get into trouble.
"Most of them [people who move in the new homes] I fear for. Some of them will face the same issues as we did," said Gibbs.
Gibbs is also fighting to stop polluters from setting up facilities in minority or low-income neighborhoods. From her experience, she knows that polluters seek out such communities because they are not inclined to fight.
"It's just devastating because here is a community already suffering a number of social ills, then you pollute it," said Gibbs.
She added that many organizations profile a number of poor communities and find out which is least likely to resist in deciding where to build a facility. In one company's case, it ended up being East Los Angeles because its primarily poor, primarily a community of color.

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History :: Chronology - Key Dates and Events at Love Canal

Prepared by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, in 1997 with updates in 1998 and 2002.


April, 1978 - Niagara Gazette Newspaper reporter Michael Brown wrote a series on hazardous waste problems in Niagara Falls, NY including the Love Canal dumpsite.

April, 1978 - Residents of area, concerned about health risks from Love Canal after reading Brown's articles, called local and state health authorities for answers.

April 25, 1978 - New York State Health Commissioner, confirmed that a public health hazard existed in the Love Canal community. Commissioner ordered the Niagara County Health Department to remove exposed chemicals from the site and install a fence around the area.

April, 1978 - Lois Gibbs, resident and mother of two children, began to canvass the neighborhood with a petition to close the 99th Street School located near the center of the dumpsite. Gibbs' five year old son attended kindergarten in that school.

May 19, 1978 - New York State Health Department met with residents for the first time to explain potential hazards of exposure to toxic chemicals in and around homes.

August 2, 1978 - A small group of residents drove to Albany, NY to present their petition to close the 99th Street School to the NYS Health Department.

August 2, 1978 - The New York State Commissioner of Health declared a State of Emergency at Love Canal and ordered the 99th Street School be closed and a clean up plan be undertaken immediately. He also recommended that pregnant women and children under two who lived in the area immediately surrounding the Love Canal landfill should move.

August 7, 1978 - The President of the United States declared the Love Canal neighborhood an emergency and provided funds to permanently relocate the 239 families who lived in the first two rows of homes that encircled the landfill site. Families living in the remaining 10-block area, including Lois Gibbs' family, were told they were not at risk.

February 8, 1979 - A second evacuation order was issued by the New York State Department of Health. This order recommended that pregnant women and children under the age of two living in the 10 block area outside the first evacuation zone of 239 homes should leave. In this case, once the child turned two years of age or the pregnancy terminated, the family was to move back into the contaminated neighborhood.

September 8, 1979 - 300 additional families living within the 10 block neighborhood were temporarily relocated as a result of health problems caused by chemical exposures from the clean up activities.

May 17, 1980 - Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced the result of blood tests that showed chromosome damage in Love Canal residents. Residents were told that this meant they were at increased risk of cancer, reproductive problems and genetic damage.

May 19, 1980 - Love Canal residents, frightened by the news of chromosome damage and angered by the lack of government action to relocate their families from the serious public health risks of living near Love Canal, "detained" (held hostage) two Environmental Protection Agency representatives. Love Canal families challenged the White House to relocate all families by Wednesday (May 21st) at noon or "What we've done here today, will look like a Sesame Street picnic compared to what we'll do then," said Lois Gibbs, President of the Love Canal Homeowners Association.

May 21, 1980 - White House agreed to evacuate all Love Canal families temporally until permanent relocation funds could be secured.

October 1, 1980 - President Carter visited Niagara Falls to sign the appropriation bill that provided the funding for permanent relocation for all 900 families who wished to leave.

December 20, 1983 - Lawsuit filed by 1328 Love Canal residents was settled for just under $20 million dollars with Occidental Chemical Corporation, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum. One million dollars were set aside for a Medical Trust Fund.

September 1988 - New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH) completed a five year Habitability Study and concluded that portions of the Love Canal neighborhood were "as habitable as other areas of Niagara Falls." NYSDOH refused to declare these areas safe.

September 15, 1989 - People from across the country joined former Love Canal residents in Albany, New York at the capitol to protest the decision to move new families back into the Canal.

January 19, 1990 - Lois Gibbs and others met with E.P.A. Administrator William Reilly in an attempt to block the resettlement of the northern portion of Love Canal.

April 1, 1990 - Community leaders from across the state and nation came together with one-time residents of Love Canal in a major rally in Niagara Falls to protest the resettlement.

August 15, 1990 - Love Canal Revitalization Agency renamed a portion of Love Canal, Black Creek Village, and announced that 9 homes were available for sale to the general public.

November 28, 1990 - The first new family moved into Love Canal, but further efforts to sell homes moved slowly. Regional banks were unwilling to accept mortgages for Love Canal homes.

April, 1992 - Federal Housing Administration agreed to provide mortgage insurance to families who wished to purchase Love Canal homes.

September, 1992 the 93rd Street School building was demolished.

June 22, 1994 - Occidental Petroleum agreed to pay $98 million to cover New York State's cleanup costs.

January 5, 1995 - Occidental Chemical, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, took over full operations and maintenance of the chemical waste treatment plant at Love Canal.

December 22, 1995 - Occidental Petroleum agreed to pay $129 million to cover the federal government's cleanup costs at Love Canal.

August, 1997 The New York State Department of Health, was awarded a $3 million federal grant to conduct a follow-up health study of the families who lived near Love Canal before 1979.

July 24, 1998 Congressman John J. LaFalce (D-Tn. Of Tonawanda) announces that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has agreed to request the City of Niagara Falls that the agency demolish the 63 remaining homes in the portion of the Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area (EDA) deemed unsuitable for residential use.

August, 1998 A playground was built on the southern section (not habitable) section area of the neighborhood.

Biography

  • Established Love Canal Honeowner's Association in August of 1978.
  • On August 2, 1978, the New York State Department of Health closed the local elementary school, and moved 239 residents out of the area.
  • Gibbs and her neighbors held two EPA officials hostage until the state agreed to move all residents out of the area.
  • Jimmy Carter declared an emergency evacution and moved 900 families out of of Love Canal 1980.
  • Gibbs forms the Center for Health, Environment and Justice to help other communities fight environmental injustice.