A Toxic Nightmare: The Awakening [The Story of Love Canal Pt. 1]


A Toxic Nightmare: The Awakening [The Story of Love Canal Pt. 1]


More than forty years after covering the Love Canal disaster in Niagara Falls, former WIVB-TV senior correspondent Rich Newberg returns to the site where 20,000 thousand tons of buried industrial chemicals took a terrible toll on families living on top of the toxic dumpsite. Hooker Chemical had once sold the property to the Niagara Falls School District for a dollar.

The cries of families ravaged by chemical exposure in their own homes had initially been ignored by lawmakers who were in a position to offer meaningful support. The grassroots struggle of these homeowners and their ultimate victory in winning federal support offers powerful lessons to a nation still troubled by environmental injustice.

Mr. Newberg tracked down the former Niagara Gazette rookie reporter who broke the story in 1978. In a rare interview, Michael Brown recalls his "journalistic obsession" after going door-to-door in the Love Canal neighborhood and establishing a pattern of still births and cancer.

Lois Gibbs, the stay-at-home mom who rose to national prominence in her fight to be heard, tells Mr. Newberg that local broadcast journalists played a major role in getting the word out. “When people are right and people peacefully demonstrate and speak truth to power,” she said, “that’s how democracy works, and then we got what we needed.”

The story ends with President Joe Biden bemoaning the fact that the right of every American to breathe clean air and drink clean water has yet to be fulfilled.

“A Toxic Nightmare: The Awakening” received a New York Emmy Award in the category of Science/Environment. It also won a national Telly Award. In addition, Rich Newberg and co-producer Tom Vetter took first place “Enterprise Reporting” honors from the Journalists Association of New York.

The piece appeared as a featured segment of the Buffalo primetime special, “The Buffalo Story: History Happens Here,” which won a New York Emmy Award for “Public Service.”

Originally aired on WIVB-TV and WNLO-TV / Buffalo, New York.





Rich Newberg Reports Collection


Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (publisher of digital)


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The loss of a child may be a direct result to the chemicals. Please don't allow this to happen to anyone else before you get them out

"Scream and holler and be heard"

This is what Love Canal looks like today, a vast and desolate fenced in area. Those of us who covered the Love Canal disaster for our western New York television viewers knew the story would have a ripple effect because of what it revealed about toxic contamination. It became what prosecutors called a national symbol for corporate irresponsibility. Long before TV news cameras were around an entrepreneur named Lillian love broke ground for a canal in 1894. It was about seven miles from Niagara Falls. He plan to divert water from the mighty Niagara River to help power a modern industrial city that he and his investors hope to create the project never have. The giant ditch that Mr. Love created became a dumping ground for 20,000 tons of toxic chemical waste from the pucker chemical and plastics Corporation and the US military. In 1953, poker sold the property to the Niagara Falls School District for $1. homes and schools were built on the side of the toxic barrier and then chemicals began surfacing into people's homes and the property around them and there was a terrible human price to be paid.

I lost obviously the one externally has stillborn. Her son is sick, this person is sick. How many more kids have to be sick haven't been done. We're not gonna let...

Michael Brown rookie reporter for the Niagara Gazette wrote his story after going door to door in the Love Canal neighbor in 1978. In case after case door after door house after house I you know people were telling me litany of different problems whether it's was miscarriages or, or, or cancers that they thought were peculiar. So this became a journalistic obsession of mine.

Like well, when he started talking about 99 Straight Elementary School is when it clicked for me because my son who was perfectly healthy is one years old when we moved into our Love Canal home. What since the time we moved there, kept getting sicker and sicker and sicker. What do you do for my kid? What are you gonna do?

A leader of the homeowners emerged. Lois Gibbs.

Anything going on in the state of New York it is more important as these people lie.

The state of New York initially announced it would evacuate only pregnant women and children under two who lived closest to the dump site.

Back now

When Niagara County lawmakers would not support the relocation of residents. Lois Gibbs lashed out as our cameras were rolling

The media especially television is so important that it is the platform the bully pulpit, if you will, in which you can not only get your message out, but you can also provide the pressure on those who need to be pressured to do the right thing.

Discovery of dioxin one of the most lethal chemicals ever created by humans and use to defoliate the jungles of Vietnam during the war, raised fears to a new level the United States only knew what was in that canal and still they let their children go to that school. They let citizens build homes over here because

I remember being in the White House where the army came in full dress and said no sir, we did not dump there. And they lied to the White House representatives. It was fascinating to me was the fact that when they dropped a drum in there and they would open up there's like a machine that you know you know the flames fire, everything went in here.

So it just created a fantastic uproar and a lot more national publicity.

On October 4 1979, actress and activist Jane Fonda and husband Tom Hayden, hate a visit to the Love Canal neighborhood to lend their support

This is a tragedy of such immense human proportions that it's very difficult to talk we've had a short bus ride while we have an opportunity to talk to some of the people in some detail about what they've gone through the children they've lost the miscarriages, the husbands, they've lost. Their lives have been torn up. It's unbelievable. That this happens in America today.

Jane Fonda coming brought that media attention in which we could say the president card you got to do the right thing

With buffalo television news cameras rolling. Lois Gibbs made it clear that Love Canal residents were making their case directly to the White House.

They have to keep the pressure on President Carter. We had to create more pressure than the Cubans coming in and Florida. Than the ... they demanded of federal buyers of their homes.

I'm 65 years old, almost second, third up in a yo yo all this way. All the other way. Why don't you get a hold on where you're pulling me down the road? Oh my God, I don't want to be relocated. All I want is my 28th Five and given to me tonight. And I'll never look back at Love Canal again.

May 16 1980. Rare chromosomal damage is found in a sampling of Love Canal residents.

We found two particular characteristics in this study, which are ominous.

I just want to get my kids away from here from the factories are under pressure or maybe they can have a decent life. I don't know. My son's probably already permanently damaged.

That was the straw that broke the camel's back. The fact that we now know that the chemicals are in the home that they got into the people and they caused chromosome damage in the people indicates that the miscarriages and the birth defects and cancer is a result of living in this neighborhood.

We have got abnormalities in our chromosomes and we've known it all along. On our street alone. There has been already eight cases of cancer on the 15th House street may 19 1982. EPA officials are held hostage for six hours

If we do not have a disaster declaration Wednesday by now what they have seen here today is just a Sesame Street picnic.

Two days later, President Jimmy Carter declared the Love Canal neighborhood a national emergency and agreed to evacuate all Love Canal. And on October 1 1980 President Carter came to Niagara Falls to announce that all the Love Canal families who wish to leave their homes would be provided the money to permanently relocate.

There's really no way to make adequate restitution for that kind of stuff. But this agreement will at least give the founders of the area some 750 of the financial freedom to pack up and leave if they choose to do so.

The President singled out the woman who called the grassroots leader of the Love Canal residents lowest gear for special recognition

Without her impassioned advocacy and dedication. That might have never been a Love Canal emergency declaration. And this agreement might never have come the time. There must never be in our country. Another Love Canal. A Love Canal. Mr. President, what can I say? New York love you today.

When people are right in people peacefully demonstrate and speak truth to power. That's how democracy works. And then we got what we need. I believe that every American has a fundamental right to breathe clean air and drink clean water. I know that we haven't filled that filling this basic obligation to all Americans, especially low income, white, black, brown and Native American communities. It's not going to be easy. But it's absolutely necessary.

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