Farewell To Love Canal

From industrial afterthought to environmental foresight


From the standpoint of the end of the twentieth century, we could say that environmental management has emerged as one of the highest priorities for industrial development. In practice, it has—until recently— been more or less an afterthought. Nowadays it seems perfectly clear that industrial development must strive for a high degree of environmental foresight. But in the past, this has simply not happened. There are a number of reasons for this. Some of them are institutional; others are economic. Some are the result of poor or inadequate science; others again are really a manifestation of the sheer complexity of the problem.

A major change of attitude towards environmental management has occurred in the course of the last two decades or so. This shift—towards preventive environmental management—provides the motivation for much of the rest of this book. Understanding this change requires some discussion of the context in which it has arisen. So this chapter is devoted to a brief description of some of the principal developments in environmental management which have occurred during the last century. It attempts to appreciate the difficulties—rather than simply condemn the deficiencies—of the past, and to identify clear lessons for the future of environmental management.


The story of Love Canal1 is a monument to the failure of early environmental management practices in the industrial economy. The canal was a small artificial waterway which once flowed into the Niagara River in New York State. It was originally excavated in the late ninteenth century as part of a hydroelectric project. From the early 1940s until the early 1950s, the canal was used by Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation as a dump for its chemical wastes. During that time more than 40,000 metric tonnes of toxic chemical wastes (including dioxins, lindane and arsenic trichloride) were dumped into the conduit. In 1945, an analyst for Hooker predicted that 'the quagmire at Love Canal will be a potential source of lawsuits'. Despite this recognition, or perhaps because of it, the site was filled in by the company, and sold to the local Board of Education in 1953 for $1, on the condition that the company was absolved from any future liability for the site.

An elementary school was erected at Love Canal, and later a housing estate was built. Twenty years later the site was found to be leaking. There were reports among the local population of skin irritations and respiratory problems, and in 1977 tests revealed that the soil and water in the vicinity of the former dump were heavily contaminated with a wide range of toxic chemicals, many of them carcinogenic. The local authorities refused to act at first. But in April 1978, after persistent lobbying from the local citizens' group, a state of emergency was declared by President Carter's government. It was the first time that a national emergency had been declared anywhere as a result of chemical pollution.

The New York State Commissioner for Health ordered the evacuation of 240 families and the dump was cordoned off as a Federal Disaster Area. Lawsuits of $1,400 million have been filed against Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corporation. But half a century after the damage was inflicted the site at Love Canal has still not been cleaned up.

If Love Canal were an isolated instance in the history of the industrial economy, perhaps it could be dismissed as the irresponsible aberration of a careless corporation. But it is not an isolated incident. A second Hooker dump at Bloody Run Creek, situated just across the road from a water treatment plant serving 100,000 people, has also been found to be leaking. And there are 212 other dumps in the Niagara Falls area alone, containing an estimated 8 million tonnes of hazardous wastes. In fact, there are around 15,000 uncontrolled hazardous waste landfills and 80,000 contaminated lagoons in the United States. A national priority list of around 2,000 sites has been drawn up under the US Superfund programme, which has the responsibility of making financial provision for cleaning up past contamination. The cost of cleaning up only these national priority sites has been estimated at approaching $200 billion.2

The incident at Love Canal is only one among hundreds of thousands of environmental tragedies worldwide. Some of the worst of these tragedies have taken place in Eastern and Central Europe. Environmental management under the former Communist regimes has lagged significantly behind efforts in the Western world to improve the situation, and there are now areas of Eastern Europe where the soils are too contaminated to sustain agricultural produce safe for human consumption. Water supplies are at constant risk of contamination from leaking landfill sites.


This litany of environmental mismanagement suggests that we must regard Love Canal as symptomatic of a particular attitude or 'world view' which has typified the institutions characterising the industrial economy: companies, regulatory authorities, and governments. This world view—which has prevailed since the industrial revolution— supported a kind of laissez-faire philosophy towards the environment which has allowed waste materials to flow more or less unhindered out of the economy into the atmosphere, into lakes, rivers and seas, and on to the land.

If we were to search for some kind of logic behind this laissez-faire philosophy, we would find several influential factors. Some justification for this world view actually proceeds from a limited consideration of the natural world, for instance, from the behaviour of materials in natural ecosystems. Equally influential are the economic and institutional structures which characterise industrial development, and provide powerful incentives for particular kinds of behaviour. But there are also a number of circumstantial features of the problem, factors which perhaps justified a particular world view prior to industrialisation but render it suspect later on.

Amongst the circumstantial factors, for instance, is the obvious element of scale. When the scale of human activities was more limited, so were its impacts. When land was abundant and human settlement small by comparison, there was always room to move away from adverse environmental effects, and to start again somewhere else. In fact, history is littered with instances of environmental migration. For example, the once coastal city of Ephesus in Turkey (which is now several miles from the sea) was moved several times and finally abandoned in the fourth century after siltation rendered the port unusable. Debeir et al. (1991) describe the prevalence of this foul-and-flee style of environmental management in the pre-industrial energy system in China.

Another circumstantial factor is the changing material nature of human activities. Although the material basis of society is now phenomenally complex, it was once relatively simple. Even as little as fifty years ago, remarkably few synthetic toxic materials were in use. What are now clearly bankrupt environmental attitudes are sometimes no more than an extension of philosophies that might once have been valid. And of course we must also weigh up the new demands on our environmental knowledge which the variety and complexity of the industrial world imposes. Certainly, our existing knowledge is too limited to be able to predict accurately the environmental effects of all these new activities. It might even be argued that the increase in complexity of human activities has introduced new, irreducible uncertainties into the problem of environmental management.3

The supporting beliefs—beliefs which to some extent justified the laissez-faire approach—are also interesting to contemplate. These beliefs formed a part of the basis for later developments in environmental management. And although the newer developments have not always been successful, they certainly offered short-term environmental improvements over earlier attitudes.

I highlight two particular supporting beliefs. First, there is a belief that it is possible to concentrate and contain environmental contamination: to keep it in one place and prevent it from leaking out into the world at large, or leading to human exposure. Second, and to some extent conversely, there has been a belief that it is possible to dilute and disperse pollution through the environment to such an extent that it no longer becomes a threat. Usually, the concentrate-and-contain philosophy has been adopted for disposal of wastes on land. And the dilute-and-disperse philosophy has been used to justify disposal into the atmosphere and into rivers, lakes and seas.

Both of these underlying beliefs have some kind of basis in reality. We know very well that particular substances have remained in more or less the same place in the environment for thousands of years. Deposits of metallic minerals, for instance, have remained locked away in rocks and geological substrata until the advent of modern mining techniques. Equally, of course, the dilute-and-disperse philosophy draws some kind of inspiration from the natural ecological mechanism described in the previous chapter, in which materials are dissipated through natural ecosystems and returned to natural 'anti-entropic' material cycles.

The danger behind both of these assumptions is really the same: neither of these patterns of material behaviour—dilution on the one hand and containment on the other—really reflects the long-term behaviour of materials in the Earth as a thermodynamic system. Special conditions can lead to the accumulation of some minerals in certain deposits and keep other minerals hidden away for long periods of geological history. But there is absolutely no guarantee that we can mimic those special conditions. It has often proved extremely difficult to isolate or contain toxic pollutants even over relatively small timescales. That was amply demonstrated by the incident at Love Canal. Improving the isolation, fortifying landfills, creating special containment sites might help in the short run. But the truth is that we have absolutely no guarantee of the success of such a strategy in the long term. We just do not know how a sophisticated cocktail of exotic toxic materials is going to behave over the length of time we would want ourselves and our descendants to be protected from it.

The dilute-and-disperse approach is particularly suspect. We saw in Chapter 1 that materials do tend to disperse in an isolated system. But we have also seen that, in a system open to the input of high-quality energy, accumulation and cycling of materials are the long-term trends. And it is these anti-entropic material cycles which should warn us against a simplistic notion of dilution and dispersal as the basis for environmental management. Materials may disperse during certain periods of a cycle. But transport, sedimentation and accumulation are equally important features of those cycles. In environmental terms, as in life, it is often true that 'what goes around, comes around'!


In spite of these centra-indications, the dilute-and-disperse approach has been applied widely within environmental management. It has been assumed that even highly toxic materials can be released safely into the environment, provided that the receiving medium (the water, air or land) is large enough. A notion has been developed that the environment possesses a certain assimilative capacity, a level of tolerance to material inputs, below which no harmful effects would occur. This notion has been used to justify emissions of a wide range of pollutants, particularly into the marine environment. Mercury, lead, cadmium, radioactive waste, sewage, and even synthetic organic materials have been dumped into rivers, lakes and oceans on the assumption that they will dilute and disperse. Unfortunately, this approach is fundamentally flawed and has resulted in some spectacular failures. One of the most tragic of these involved the release of the toxic metal mercury into the sea in the 1950s.

Mercury had been discharged into Minamata Bay in Japan from the Chisso chemical factory for fifteen years before the first cases of 'Minamata disease' were recognised in 1953. The assumption had been that the mercury content of the wastes would be dispersed in the volume of water and diluted to a level at which it would present no threat to the human population.

Two unforeseen factors provoked a catastrophe. First, rather than dispersing, the mercury accumulated through the food chain. Small organisms absorbed the mercury, which was then passed on to the larger organisms which feed on them. The higher up the food chain, the higher the concentration of mercury. Eventually this bioaccumulation led to very high levels of mercury in the local fish—the staple diet of a certain section of the local population. These people were therefore at great risk from any contamination, and in the event, they bore the brunt of the fatalities.

The second unforeseen element concerned the chemical form of the mercury. Organic4 mercury is considerably more toxic to living organisms than inorganic mercury because it is more easily absorbed. Most of the mercury in the emissions to Minamata Bay were in the form of inorganic mercury, giving further grounds for believing the disposal practice was safe. In fact, what happened was that inorganic mercury from the effluent was converted to organic methyl mercury by the action of microbes in the sea sediments. This conversion considerably increased the toxicological risk to the human population via the food chain. Between them these two factors spelt disaster for the residents of Minamata Bay. By 1983, deaths from the incident had reached 300, and at least 1,500 people were officially recognised to be suffering from Minamata disease—although 6,000 claimed to have been affected.

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