An Interview with Michael Brown


An Interview with Michael Brown


As a young journalist at the Niagara Gazette in 1977, Michael Brown took a special interest in stories by two fellow reporters at the paper involving sump pump issues in the Love Canal neighborhood. Reported problems included odors and chemicals surfacing in homes. Those articles, published in 1976, did not get much traction at the time.

Mr. Brown had begun covering toxic waste dumpsites in Niagara County. That became his journalistic focus. He managed to stir up a lot of controversy in the process.

While covering a public hearing, a woman in her early 20s from the Love Canal neighborhood broke down in tears when describing her concerns about potential health issues associated with chemicals believed to be leaking into her and her neighbors’ homes.

The city of Niagara Falls had initiated an assessment of the issue and considered covering the old dumpsite with clay. In 1977, Mr. Brown talked with a city engineer who felt the situation was very serious and could effect future generations if not properly addressed.

A period of silence by the city followed. Brown decided to follow up but said he got no answers from the County Health Department. He had become the Niagara Falls City Hall reporter for the Gazette. His journalistic intuition prompted him to go door-to-door, talking with Love Canal families. His goal was to determine whether the presence of toxic chemicals may have been having an effect on their health.

Rich Newberg’s interview with Michael Brown takes us back to that initial period of discovery and what followed next. At the time of the interview, more than four decades had passed since the Love Canal disaster became a “journalistic obsession” for Mr. Brown.

Viewers will learn of the obstacles he faced and how his reporting for the Niagara Gazette led to the rise of Lois Gibbs, leader of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, whose tireless efforts not only ended in victory for her neighbors, but served as the beginning of the environmental justice movement for people exposed to toxic chemicals in their communities.

Portions of the Brown and Gibbs interviews appear in the 2021 documentary, “The Buffalo Story: History Happens Here.” The segment entitled “A Toxic Nightmare: The Awakening,” won a New York Emmy award in 2022 in the category of Science/Environment.




Rich Newberg Reports Collection


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Okay, so let's just Mike Michael, why don't you start just by giving me your name and the date? It's the 23rd. Right November. And let's start from there. And then I'll ask you,

Michael Brown, it's November 23 2020.

Michael. It's been well recorded that you were the first journalist to become aware of problems in the Love Canal neighborhood. Can you bring us back to that moment? What is your discovery what who contacted you? What was your discovery and what were the what were your first thoughts?

Okay, well, first of all, I like to make clear that a couple of years before two other reporters at the Gazette had written a story on on the fact that there was a sump pump problem and it had an odor and there was some chemicals in there, they did testing. Then it was kind of, you know, set set aside. I that was 7619 76. I came aboard in 1977. And, and there were two. There were two reasons I went after the story. It was not in the news, and it had been a couple articles. More than a year before. And then it was a question it was very quiet and I I had been, I started to cover Chem droll, a company that was dumping highly toxic chemicals and Louis to New York. And I really got on to the toxic waste issue in Niagara County. And when I did that, in one meeting, it started up a lot of activism in the area. It started up controversy the articles did. Toxic Waste became an issue in Niagara County in a big way. I was writing about it every day. And at one of the meetings I on control, a public meeting in which people were complaining about the dump site there. There was a young girl who got up to speak and she started weeping. She was crying that you know, this place Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, this old dump was was leaking all over the place and harming, possibly harming her family and neighbors and so forth. And that certainly caught my attention.

How all what was she crying about? Michael? What what? It's a child or birth defects or? No, she was

she was very young. She was she was 21 or younger. And she was just scared because of the odors, the the odors that were coming off in the Love Canal. And, you know, at this point, no one knew that it was a danger to human health. whatsoever. I mean, no one's concerned about the environmental aspect from the sump pumps and so forth that I mentioned. And there were studies that the city had initiated an assessment of it, and I attended one of the meetings. And when I was coming down an elevator for the meeting. I spoke to an engineer they were talking about the dump and covering it up with some clay and I asked him I said is this really a serious situation? He said, If we don't do something about this, our children or our children's children are going to suffer. And that also got my attention from that time. On that was in 77. I started to watch the situation very closely. I kept monitoring it. I kept calling the County Health Department. There was no news for the longest time. And one day in in 19 I was trying to keep it I was trying to make it an item in the news. And I was the city hall reporter Niagara Falls I was in charge of the city. i One day I was sitting at my desk at the Niagara does that and something prompted me I guess you'd call it intuition to go out there. And to you know, take a look around. Ask neighbors how they were doing when and when I did. I was shocked at what I found. I the first person I visited was a family called the Schroeder's Timothy and Karen Schroeder. They had a young daughter who was suffering more than a dozen birth defects and some severe ones. And I started they were all other illnesses in the family including with Tim and and another child. I began to canvass the neighborhood and I went door to door up there st 99 Straight what they later called the first ring of Love Canal. And in case after case door after door house after house. I people were telling me litany of different problems, whether it's was miscarriages or, or, or cancers that they thought were peculiar. And so this, you know, this became a journalistic obsession of mine. And I began to follow up closely and write anything I could on it. I ended up writing, oh 100 news stories and news items about it. And possibly, most importantly, other dumps in the area that could have posed even more of a threat but that when I call the state health department, and I mentioned I remember was a Friday I mentioned that. It seemed like there were illnesses out there. You could tell there was nearly an electrical reaction to that and shortly after that the state announced rather quickly that they were going to hold the health survey there and take blood samplings and a found miscarriages and indications of liver abnormalities and and this and they took some that was from some blood tests the the liver abnormalities and this ended up eventually leading to the declaration of an emergency. Not on August 2 1978.

Michael, what kind of resistance did you need? As you were covering this story? And what let's start with the head but also what was government's reaction and big business reaction when you first when when this issue surfaced at Philip Knapp?

Well, you gotta remember and I'm sure you know that the hooker Chemical Company was the biggest employer in Niagara Falls foul with some people. It's also one of the larger chemical companies in the world owned by Occidental Petroleum, a large entity based in Los Angeles. And so it was extremely important economically the city government the mayor, I knew the mayor very well. I used to talk to him every morning is City Hall reporter that was Michael Lachlan. And this the city manager Don O'Hara they were they were nice guys. We got along fine until this point because they really did not want much publicity on the situation. And I was being assured that it was no big deal that we're going to just cover it with some clay and maybe drain the periphery and that would be that and this is before the declaration of an emergency. I also because I was writing about it at any opportunity. I received a phone call from a state senator who, who told me he asked me says when you're going to go back to being a reporter, instead of an activist this there's no issue here. And when he tried to basically tell me to stop writing about it, and I remember even like it was Senator Lloyd patters. God bless God rest his soul and also there was a health commissioner Niagara County. I don't like I really don't like to cast aspersions on people, especially ones who have passed on as most of these have, but just being a reporter here with the facts. I'm not necessarily blaming them for anything. There was also a health commissioner County Health Commissioner who became very angry at me for questioning whether or not this could be a health hazard. And he was a medical doctor and he said to me, you know, are you a medical doctor and when you're going to be, again, kind of when are you going to go back to being a reporter and I was being a reporter. It's just that I wasn't taking answers that at face value. I knew that there was a problem there. I knew that there were possible health ramifications big time. And in fact, when a state started to sample, not just some pumps, which they had done in a couple of cases, but the air of the homes the basements along 99 Street and South 97th street. They found chlorine they found volatile organic chemicals in the air of those homes including benzene and MS caused a special alarm with me because I happen to know I happen to have read recently that benzene was the the only totally proven human carcinogen from synthetic industrial chemicals back that and as well and there were a host of dozens of other chemicals volatize and evaporating into the atmosphere of their homes. So I knew that this was a big story. I told one I told the councilmen I said this is gonna end up being the biggest story in Niagara Falls history and they simply they simply don't believe that later on. One of the councilmen told me he said, You know, I wish I had listened that was kind of a prophecy if you will, and you know, it was wasn't a prophecy, which is based on what you saw when you went out there.

When did you meet Lois Gibbs and what was your first impression?

Well, again, I had been writing a lot about this and dealing with Karen Schroeder, who would organize the citizens she was for a petition to try to get out of there. This is don't forget at this point. It was it was a problem only they thought for a few homes and only at the southern end in what they call the first ring of homes where Karen Schroeder lived and her mother lived in some other people. So she was organizing Karen was people to sign a petition about the getting out of there. I think there were like 30 homes involved. And so I was writing about that and I was out there a lot and one day and I don't know exactly what the date would have been and I got a phone call from a woman who didn't live as close as Karen she lived a few blocks farther away. And her name was Lois Gibbs and she asked if she could come and see me and talk about the Love Canal. And I said sure. And she came to the office and I gave her a technical report from engineers on what we're going to try to remediate the southern end was some clay and I basically I think I gave her more news clip she had been reading my stories, but I think I gave her more news clips and I just talked to her about the circumstance there. And that was about about the extent of it. I didn't see or hear from her again until August 2, the day it was declared a an emergency by the State Health Commissioner,

And what year are we talking about?


So did you sense that this woman who described herself as a housewife and a mother and was trying to do the best for her family? Did you have any idea that she would grow into what you know, grow this movement into one of the most incredible grass movements this country has ever seen as far as the environment goes, leading to the super fun

Well I knew that the circumstance that Love Canal was going to lead to that because it was huge news. I mean, it was massive news. It was on Walter Cronkite, it was all over the place. It was the front page of The New York Times just before August 2, a New York Times reporter named Donald McNeil came to Niagara Falls and he called me and he came to my house and had dinner at my house and and I told him about Love Canal and and he was very young reporter and so it's I have the time and I just gave him a box of my of the stuff I had accumulated and I sit here. I didn't care about journalistic competition. At this point. I wanted to see those people get out of there, and he took the material. And then on August 2 He he followed up on the same day of the emergency with a front page article in The New York Times that that that created a firestorm across America, and in an end it was a continual one. And along with the so that was the, you know, that was there was a lot of there was international publicity. There was a deluge it was it was astonishing, and it continued. Up to there. Lois had a tremendous involvement in the second evacuation in 1982 years later, later. But I know by this time I was in New York City I had left Niagara Falls to write a book about Love Canal and other toxic dumps. around America. And and she was they had evacuated the first two rings that Love Canal, but not Lois Gibbs area which, like I said, was farther out and was not as contaminated as a man a matter of fact they the state argued it wasn't contaminated at all. It was a lot of controversy over that. But anyway, she soaked up a lot of grassroots movement for for that to be likewise evacuated. And in 1980 there was they found out there was possibility of some genetic DNA abnormalities with people who did live a little farther away than then that first ring and a second ring that were evacuated. And, and this led to that, along with their grassroots effort keeping it in the news every day. Lois did with her group, gray smoke cloth and another woman, Marie Pozniak. They they constantly kept it in the nose, and especially in in front of the buffalo TV cameras and so this, these forces were to create that second evacuation which also call caused a national Firestorm.

So how important was the visual element here when you mentioned television, which is my medium and Tommy's medium? How important was television coverage? In bringing this in and up close and personal way to the eyes of the public?

Well, back then it possible it was important locally especially, it was important nationally to I mean, this was something that starting in August of 78 was like I said on network news back then, and three major networks dominated there was no cable news, and it was on all three of those major networks as well as PBS, the public stations. So it was important. Back then, newspapers were far more important than the air today, and it was probably more of a newspaper story across the country than a TV story. And also the same was was true of other circumstances. So it was certainly a big TV story and and it was important to have the television stations there for certain like I said there was somewhat of a different environment as far as media back then. And of course no internet and how just today to have his archives, where we can actually see events unfold as they did in that era.

Well, I think it's important especially if we apply it to what's going on today. I mean, after Love Canal, like I said I wrote a book about it called laying waste the poisoning of America that generated a lot of attention around the country. I did hundreds of radio and TV shows about it, including the Today Show Nightline and so forth, traveled twice on national publicity tours. And and I went on a college lecture circuit to speak about Love Canal in about 100 universities and colleges around America during the ensuing years and the reason for that the reason I'm saying all this is because I thought Love Canal would spur this country would spur this country to take a look at the chemicals it was producing and use it and realize that you should not be allowed to use or manufacture at compound unless you can disassemble it in its natural components, not in toxic form. I thought that Love Canal would have a tremendous impact on the production of plastic and we certainly know it hasn't. So I mean, that was the I think that that was the real calling of Love Canal and I I'd love this to materialize that sometime in the future because you know, I'm looking at the problem. We're we're creating more plastic than ever before and toxic chemicals are very much with us.

You recall when dioxin surfaced and people actually said they had seen the military dumping that that I guess that's probably the most toxic, isn't it? I call the most toxic substance created by humans.

It was the finding of dioxin in the conformation of it in December of 1978 that probably caused the biggest single reaction of any single day was Love Canal. I remember very distinctly the health commissioner quietly he called me up and he said I'm gonna have some big news for you and he was gonna you know, and and then he actually at the time he was laboratory director, he later on became Health Commissioner David Axelrod, an excellent human being an unsung hero of Love Canal behind the scenes in Albany, and he tipped me off to the dioxin and I confirm that there was something called trike for if at all in the canal, which always carries dioxin as an unwanted byproduct. And at the time, it may still hold true today. I don't know, dioxin or what they call TCDD was the most toxic synthetic compounds ever tested by by by humans. So this like I said, this created a fantastic uproar and a lot more national publicity

In human terms, did you see the children who had birth defects Did you see the results the human misery that these chemicals created in Love Canal? And what? What was your reaction to fellow human being when you actually saw the results of this?

Well, you take care of Schroeder's daughter Sherry I just wanted them out of there. And I didn't care if I did become an activist. I wanted these people out of there, and I, you know, I was a journalist through it, but yes, the motive was to get these people out because I did see these results. I did see the suffering. I did see the pools of chemicals in the backyard the chemicals that would come and push a fool out of the out of the ground. There was a case across the canal to 90 Southern street in a janiece family was the name and you had black sludge that came up through the drain in their spinner in ground swimming pool and I remember Mrs. janiece telling me that she had gone she didn't know what it was she went down and cleaned up this black gunk this this slurry or sludge and afterwards became very sick first of all, with a tremendous skin rash. And then a litany of panoply of other ailments. At well her ailments you can never prove these things. Her ailments perfectly matched those that are caused by contact with dioxin. I even called up her doctor dermatologist because he had diagnosed her as having lupus and I said to a doctor, and I explained that she was probably in contact with dioxins and and again I heard from him What are you a doctor? You know, why don't you just be a reporter and you know, I was very concerned for her health she ended up dying it at a at a young age. I can't prove it was from chemicals. You can you never can. But it certainly was suspect so I saw that suffering and I certainly other cases up and down 99/97 Street, and soon I found out that the Love Canal was three times the size that the government thought it was and then I started to I was doing some testing of sump pumps with a chemical laboratory and found that the spread of chemicals was farther than the government thought including into neighborhoods that were approaching, for instance, Lois Gibbs neighborhood and others in that area. And again, these type of findings would did not offer comfort to the people there and certainly energize the circumstance and Lois Gibson and grace and Murray. You know, they really kept edit to to try to get those other people out of there and they eventually succeeded.

I call you ever threatened by any special interest groups and that that stood to lose a lot of money and you ever actually threatened?

When I when I was riding, laying waste, and I would return to Niagara Falls, I'd be tailed. There were my one and I'm not blaming anyone in particular, any company in particular but when I went and paperback version of my book laying waste came out the publisher which was Pocket Books was concerned because somehow the My Schedule had had had gotten out. I would go to a city let's say Chicago, and I'd be doing the big morning show their TV show. And there would be a representative of a chemical company in the lobby. Demanding loudly that that he or they be allowed in and and then just basically just disrupting things. Well, they couldn't figure out how the industry had gotten my schedule, my precise schedule and and I even I remember even going down to the basement of the apartment buildings I lived on an East 76th Street in Manhattan and checking to see if there were any devices on on the phone panel down in the basement. You know, for the for the apartments in that in that building. Never proved that that was the case. legal threats, Luis nizer, who at the time was the most famous, the most prominent litigant as far as is suing newspapers for for whatever slander and so forth, threatened my publisher of the heart cover laneways which was a pantheon they're owned by Random House threatened to sue them out of basically out of existence if they published my book. So there was a legal threat. And, and during this time, I don't know I mean, that again, I'm not including a a particular company or politician or whomever but there was a rather suspect, circumstance in which I returned to Niagara Falls to attend a wedding and was briefly arrested. And all charges dropped just so that they can get a little bit of a headline and, and a lawyer that came, you know, it was outraged by what they did. To me. came and made them not just dropped charges, but destroy the fact that the arrest even ever occurred.

What were the charges on that? They were trying to claim I assaulted two police officers who I had been coming out of a place to Niagara Falls and they grabbed me and and holding me off for no reason and and then claiming that I was resisting them assaulting them and so forth. One of them I again, I don't like to be too specific because I can't prove it again. But one of them was a close relative of a politician who was very disturbed at my reporting on Love Canal and in fact, who when one of the councilmen proposed having a Michael Brown day for Love Canal, his response publicly was over my dead body so I don't know why that happened. It didn't deter me. And but you know, it may get back I remember doing a radio show with a guy named Shavon Otto I think you remember him relationship. And during our show, the phones went blank. And when he called me back after it came on, he said to me off year he said, Michael, are you okay? Are you safe? And I said why? And he said I've never heard a phone act. like that before. I've never had that happen before. Be careful. He was he was concerned. But other than that, no, no, I was I can't say somebody called me up and said, We're going to kill you. I got threat threats elsewhere and other situations to toxic ways, including kind of a mob associate in New Jersey, but that was not a good chemical that was not Love Canal and had nothing to do with Niagara Falls or any competency.

We got to wrap up pretty soon. Let me ask you this. What would you like your legacy to be number one. Number two, what, as a society have we learned as a result of your work and the work of those who covered that nightmare?

I guess I'm disappointed with the results so far. I mean, actually Love Canal there was a superfund which I'm sure you're familiar with that caused a lot of the most acute circumstances with these dumps to be remediated as far as putting clay covers on him and draining, draining the lead shape but we were still dumping this stuff for incinerating it in a way that could be hazardous to people. We still have a lot of chemical companies belching stuff out in poor neighborhoods very possibly causing the same type of things that happen Love Canal I don't think Love Canal was the most dangerous situation I saw in America. There was just the one that that was the first one and got a lot of publicity of thanks to being the first one thanks to the activism of people there and so forth. But you know, at least dozens of dumps around America were stopped from from major leakage of seepage I should say and, and, you know, it made the industry look at better means of disposal no question about that. But we but matters have been reversed in recent years the EPA has been got it really and and toxic and so now, once more being allowed into the air and water in a way that that is of major concern. So there's a lot of work to be done, and lessons still to be learned from Love Canal and the many other dumps around America.

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