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How a Determined Congressional Aide Helped Break Open the Biggest Environmental Scandal in U.S. History

The telephone rang at Bonnie Casper’s desk in Washington, D.C., sometime near the end of June 1977, and the man on the other end of the line introduced himself as Joseph McDougall. He was a newly hired microbiologist working for the city of Niagara Falls and he wanted to discuss something with Casper — something important, it seemed. But he preferred to do it in person.

He informed Casper that he was coming to Washington with a consultant and he was hoping she would agree to meet them for lunch on their visit to the nation’s capital. McDougall needed help and federal funding — maybe a lot of it.

Casper agreed to the meeting with McDougall, hung up the phone, and didn’t think anything about it. As an aide to Congressman John LaFalce — the man representing New York’s 36th Congressional District — Casper was always meeting with someone from the suburbs north of Buffalo. It was her job to keep local officials happy and make sure they thought highly of the congressman, and she did it well, especially of late.

In recent months, Casper had been giving everything to her job, in part because she loved it and in part because she felt as if she had no other choice. LaFalce (pronounced Lah-FALSE) had won his seat two years earlier riding a wave of anti-Nixon, post-Watergate sentiment to Washington. But reelection the previous fall had been trickier. LaFalce might have been the incumbent, but he was still a first-termer with a thin political résumé after two years on the House banking and small business committees — committees that rarely made headlines. And finally, most difficult to overcome, LaFalce was a Democrat, the first liberal congressman to carry Niagara Falls since the Taft administration.

Casper — short and petite, at just five foot three — didn’t seem like the kind of person who could push LaFalce over the top. Her previous jobs had included teaching English in Ecuador and writing for an alternative newspaper in Vermont, and even now, as an aide to the congressman, she had no political clout. Casper didn’t even have her own working typewriter. She and another aide took turns sharing one.

But Casper understood politics. While other girls had grown up reading Nancy Drew mysteries, Casper tore through Theodore White’s groundbreaking nonfiction books about presidential campaigns, The Making of the President. She attended college at George Washington University less than a mile from the White House. She wore a black armband at graduation in 1970 to honor the students gunned down at Kent State that spring — to the horror of her far-less-radical parents. She marched against the war in Vietnam, and she was generally pretty sure that she was going to change the world.

Casper didn’t know it at the time. But that phone call she received in late June 1977 — from Joseph McDougall in Niagara Falls — would put her on an unlikely course to achieving that ambitious dream. Over the next three years, she would play a key role in investigating — and exposing — one of the greatest environmental scandals in modern American history. This work — behind the scenes and unnoticed at first — would in time make national headlines; alter U.S. environmental policy forever; radically expand the powers of a still-nascent government agency — the EPA; galvanize a band of working-class mothers to escape their own homes at almost any cost; help launch the political career of a young congressman from Tennessee who would go on to become vice president, making environmental stewardship his signature issue; and push that young congressman — Albert Gore Jr. — to call those mothers to Washington to testify about the toxic horrors in their neighborhood in Niagara Falls, the very neighborhood that Joseph McDougall was calling Bonnie Casper about in June 1977.

Casper figured McDougall wanted to speak with her about a local controversy that had people talking in LaFalce’s district that spring — and, indeed, that had infuriated folks across the state. According to the New York State Department of Health, a potent pesticide, called Mirex, was leaching into the Niagara River from an outfall pipe at Hooker Chemical, one the largest employers in the city, located right on the river. There was enough Mirex in the water that state officials had gone so far as to ban fishing in Lake Ontario while they investigated, and this seemed like the sort of decision that might involve a man like McDougall. As a microbiologist, he oversaw the city’s new wastewater treatment laboratory. It was his job to analyze the wastewater discharges coming from Hooker and the other large chemical plants lined up along the river.

But as they sat down to lunch that day — Casper, McDougall and the consultant, an environmental engineer named Richard Leonard — McDougall dissuaded her of this notion and got straight to the point. They weren’t there to discuss Mirex, pesticides or problems with the water in Niagara Falls. They had a different issue, they explained, involving Hooker Chemical, and this one was potentially more dangerous than Mirex. They had reports of rusted chemical drums surfacing and rupturing on the east side of town, and they believed that other drums were buried in the ground. Lots of them, probably — with contents unknown. Hooker either couldn’t or wouldn’t say what was there. McDougall and others were still trying to find out. In the meantime, the most important information was this: The old chemical dump was now a school and a playground — in the middle of a residential neighborhood — and preliminary testing there had indicated the presence of toxic compounds.

“We have a real problem,” McDougall said that day in Washington. “A severe health and economic problem.”

But he was getting ahead of himself. McDougall needed to stop and go back. Casper wasn’t from Niagara Falls. She didn’t know the history, the land or the particulars of this rectangular parcel where the children liked to play. McDougall needed to ask her a question.

Had she ever heard of a plot of land that Hooker Chemical had once owned on the east side of town? Had she ever heard of Love Canal?

Hooker Chemical was a fixture in Niagara Falls, deeply entrenched in the city and connected in all the places that mattered most. Hooker men — and they were always men — often descended from true Yankee blood, graduated from Ivy League schools, entertained at the Niagara Falls Country Club and attended Presbyterian services in the suburbs on Sunday mornings with their wives and children.

In this way, the executives were a reflection of the company’s namesake, Elon Hooker, who had founded the chemical outfit on the shores of the Niagara River in 1905. Long before most, Hooker understood that chemicals were the future. They would help make almost everything we used in daily life, and he wanted to make sure he, Elon Hooker, would be there to give the people what they needed: sodium sulfide for shoe leather, monochlorotoluene for motor lubricants, aluminum chloride for high-octane gasoline and thionyl chloride — for America and its allies during World War I. The volatile chemical agent — and Hooker product — was used to make mustard gas.

By his death in 1938, Hooker had made a fortune from it all at the factory along the river in Niagara Falls, and the men left behind at the company knew that more money was coming. Hooker was now manufacturing a hundred different chemicals a year, and with another war looming on the horizon, the company was prepared to produce them even faster. There were only two problems. The chemicals were often known irritants that could be fatal, cause nausea and vomiting, or burn employees’ skin, eyes and lungs through spillage, steam or other mishaps. And the company was manufacturing these products so quickly executives needed a place to store the excess, the waste, the chemical residues. Hooker needed a proper dump.

In 1941, the new Hooker man in charge — a Dartmouth graduate and a descendant of a signer of the Declaration of Independence — set his sights on buying an abandoned canal just a few miles upriver, a ragged waterway carved into the ground long ago by an entrepreneur named William T. Love. A power company owned the land these days, but it was unused, and by the spring of 1942 the two parties had worked out an agreement for Hooker to utilize this location “as a waste disposal area.”

For roughly the next decade, Hooker trucks routinely made the short drive up the river to deliver drums to the old canal, drums filled with all sorts of material. Highly reactive acids — which, at some concentrations, could cause breathing problems and nerve damage — went there. Potent pesticides, like benzene hexachloride, did, too. Even residues of thionyl chloride — the foundation for Hooker’s famous poison gases, clear or pale yellow, with a sharp, irritating odor — ended up in the canal, despite the chemical’s known volatility. This particular compound was known to react violently with water. If left enclosed in the drum, it could explode or catch fire as water inevitably trickled in over time.

In 1946, at least one Hooker lawyer began to worry. At times, the lawyer noted, the surface of the water in the old canal shimmered with a sheen of oil, dotted with globs of congealed residue. He didn’t need to be a scientist to know that such a place could cause damage — “serious damage,” he called it — and he urged executives at the company to consider that they were exposing people to potential dangers and exposing themselves to liability. He was concerned about people who still swam in the canal, unaware of what Hooker was doing, and he was worried, too, about children. They showed up from time to time, wearing swimsuits or just poking around, drawn to the curious landscape. Yet the dumping continued into the early 1950s, creating its own problems and also an opportunity. Hooker still owned the dump in March 1952 when the city’s superintendent of schools called to make the company an offer. He wanted to build a large school on the site, to accommodate the families moving east, out of town, and he wanted to buy the property that Hooker used as landfill.

Executives initially declined. The company was now publicly traded, with two thousand employees, $36 million in annual sales and shareholders to consider. The land wasn’t suitable for a school. “It’s not like a city garbage dump,” one executive said. “These are chemicals and some of them last a long time . . . No way.”

But over the course of the spring of 1952, Hooker executives began to come around on the idea — at least, in part, for one reason. “The Love Canal property,” one executive said, “is rapidly becoming a liability because of housing projects in the near vicinity.” And by the following year, 1953, Hooker agreed to sell the land to the board of education for a dollar. There was just one caveat: The company wouldn’t be liable for any future damages that the chemicals might cause. The two parties acknowledged that the land had been filled “in whole or in part” with “waste products,” and if these products were to ever cause injury or death, “no claim, suit, action, or demand of any nature whatsoever” could be made against Hooker. Company executives wrote it into the deed — signed April 28, 1953 — and then walked away. They were still concerned about the conditions there and in many ways opposed to the land being used as a school, issuing warnings to the school superintendent after development began. “The subsoil conditions,” one Hooker lawyer informed the board of education in 1957, “make it very undesirable and possibly hazardous.”

But they were out of the Love Canal business. It was the city’s problem now.

Over lunch in Washington, Joseph McDougall told Bonnie Casper everything he knew about the canal and then asked her for help. He was hoping she could find $400,000 so the city could study the problem and better understand what was in the ground, and he invited both her and LaFalce to come to Niagara Falls. “To personally tour the Love Canal landfill site,” he said.

Back at LaFalce’s office that afternoon, Casper sat down at her desk, slipped a sheet of paper into her typewriter and began to bang away at the keys, writing up a report to brief the congressman about everything she had learned from McDougall and the consultant Richard Leonard over lunch. “According to these gentlemen,” she wrote, “there is a terrible problem in N.F. in the LaSalle area . . . an old dump site, about 30 years old, which was Hooker’s, where material was buried in drums . . . The drums have corroded, and surfaced, and just to touch the ground one can get a chemical burn . . . It is also within a school playground.”

Casper told LaFalce he should consider seeing Love Canal for himself during the August recess and until then he needed to push for funding from the EPA to help cover the $400,000 the city needed to further investigate the matter. On the latter front, anyway, LaFalce went straight to work. He sent a letter the very next day to Doug Costle, the EPA’s newly appointed director, asking for answers and money. But for weeks, LaFalce got no reply, and Casper didn’t fare any better, despite the long hours she began dedicating to the issue. She had lengthy conversations with people she knew at the EPA’s regional office in New York City, and she spent entire weekends in Washington reading every piece of environmental legislation she could find, in search of a clause she could exploit to get the city the money it needed. Still, Casper came up with nothing. And by the recess that August, it was pretty clear to both Casper and LaFalce that no one was interested in volunteering a big chunk of money to learn what was buried in an old canal in a neighborhood that few ever visited — and no one had ever heard of — several miles from the tourist district in Niagara Falls.

Even LaFalce himself seemed to lack a sense of urgency on the matter. At one point that summer, he suggested that he might not visit the neighborhood until September — a hesitancy that, politically anyway, made some sense. No one — not even McDougall — knew how big the problem really was. If the buried chemicals weren’t in the school or the houses on the east side of town, maybe it didn’t warrant a visit from the congressman. LaFalce could let local officials handle it. On the other hand, if the situation was as bad as McDougall feared, that could pose a different challenge for LaFalce. He didn’t have a solution and he hadn’t secured a single dollar in funding to study the site, despite two months of trying.

But in Casper’s opinion, none of that mattered. He needed to go out there, she told him. He needed to visit the site as soon as he could. “I think this is an issue that we could do something about,” she told LaFalce. “We should at least visit the place with appropriate officials to let them know that we are trying.”

Finally, more than two months after Casper’s lunch with McDougall and Leonard, LaFalce listened. On a Saturday morning in early September 1977, the congressman headed out to the old canal in the heart of the neighborhood with his top aide on the ground in Niagara Falls, a man named Rich Lee. They were going to meet McDougall there and tour some homes, and they had scarcely climbed out of the car when they realized they had been underestimating this problem for weeks. A chemical stench burned inside their noses, and it was even worse in the little homes that LaFalce visited that day — homes looking out onto what McDougall described as the old canal.

The owners had been complaining about problems for years: black sludge seeping through their basement walls, gaseous clouds in their yards strong enough to dislodge above-ground pools, chemical drums surfacing just beyond second base on the diamond where the kids played games and a litany of health problems — rashes, headaches, fatigue, irregular heartbeats and children born with birth defects. But since the snowmelt from the previous winter, it had only gotten worse. At their home on 99th Street, Karen and Timothy Schroeder gave LaFalce a tour of their backyard — if you could even call it a yard anymore. The land had become a puddle of chemicals, spreading to the margins, killing the trees and eating away at the fence posts on the back side of the property, and Karen Schroeder was pretty sure she knew whom to blame for it.

She had lived on the street since she was a girl and could remember the playground before it was filled in, back when it still looked a little like a canal and people called it the “Hooker dump.” She had distinct memories of trucks discarding material into the pits there and could even recall one occasion when the workers showed up at her house, frightened and looking for help. They had been burned by the splashing chemicals they were trying to bury.

Schroeder’s mother sprayed down the men with a garden hose that day while they waited for help to arrive. But the hose wasn’t strong enough to put out the fires that broke out at the dump every once in a while — when the chemical drums cracked open and the contents inside spontaneously ignited, and the few people who lived there at the time had to call the fire department to report that the land was burning. One night, in 1949, it took firefighters four hours to knock down the flames. Another time, in 1961, the fumes from a fire at the dump stripped the paint off nearby houses, giving residents further reason to complain.

Such things were “disagreeable problems,” the city’s air pollution director conceded at that time. But it wasn’t a reason to criticize the chemical industry as a whole, he added. Companies only put materials in the ground, he explained, when the items in question would prove even more harmful if they ended up in city sewers or the river. It was an explanation that had been hard to sell to the Schroeder family over the years and was hard for LaFalce and his aide Rich Lee to accept now as they stood there in her troubled yard.

Casper had been right; McDougall had been, too. The problem was potentially enormous.

The congressman got back into the car and Rich Lee pulled away in silence. But Lee drove only a couple of blocks, just far enough to get out of sight of the Schroeders, before easing the car to the curb, throwing it into park and reaching around into the backseat for what he called “the Manual” — a small, bound book with every possible phone number the congressman might need. Both men agreed that what they had seen was shocking enough that LaFalce needed to start making phone calls and writing letters right away: to the state, to the feds, to the press and to the president at Hooker Chemical — John S. Coey II, a classic Hooker man in almost every way and a man well known to John LaFalce. In a letter to him, after visiting the old canal, LaFalce addressed Coey in a casual manner that suggested a history between the two men. He called him Jack.

“As you may know,” LaFalce wrote to Coey, “I toured the Love Canal site in Niagara Falls with representatives of the city and residents of the area.” What he had seen there — and smelled there — was distressing, LaFalce explained. But his tone was friendly. He wasn’t writing to accuse Hooker of anything. LaFalce just wanted to establish “certain facts” so that he could help the city make a plan, and he asked Coey several questions: What chemicals were buried at the site? Where were they buried, and at what depth? And, finally, what might happen to these compounds after twenty or thirty years, “in terms of chemical reactions,” LaFalce said, “should they escape from the drums?”

“The citizens who live in the area are suffering each and every day,” LaFalce told Coey. “It is imperative that we act as quickly as possible on this issue and I, therefore, am hopeful that you will furnish me with a full report as expeditiously as possible.”

Coey didn’t reply to LaFalce right away. Instead, Bonnie Casper heard from Hooker’s vice president of corporate affairs, its public relations chief, Charles Cain, who wanted Casper to know that they were on it. Coey had received LaFalce’s letter. He would be getting back in touch soon, and Cain would love to meet with the congressman to discuss the matter in person. Yet when Casper offered Cain a chance to schedule an appointment with LaFalce, he didn’t take it. And actual answers were slow to come too, while the problems in the neighborhood mounted throughout the fall. At one point, McDougall’s consultant, Richard Leonard, even feared for his own safety — when he personally punctured a buried drum with an auger and wondered, for just a moment, if the ground beneath him might explode.

Yet despite these concerns, despite LaFalce’s visit, despite Casper’s best efforts and the growing number of meetings in both Niagara Falls and Albany with EPA agents, state environmental officers, McDougall, Leonard and others, news of the leaking chemicals remained one of the best kept secrets in town.

City officials suggested the problem — as alarming as it might be — was isolated, consuming Karen Schroeder’s backyard maybe and possibly her neighbors’ yards, too, and maybe several others at the southern tip of the old canal, but not the entire neighborhood, not all one thousand homes and apartments, and not the school, either. The city’s superintendent of schools declared the school to be safe for the young children attending classes there. It opened on schedule in September 1977, the same week that LaFalce visited the neighborhood, and it was going to stay open all year, as usual. Officials advised parents to ask their kids not to walk across the playground during wet weather or dig into the ground — especially not in places where a black oily goo was now bubbling up. “The material can be quite odorous and very discomforting,” said George Amery, a relatively new health official for the city who had thirty years of experience working for big chemical companies. “Kids should be warned to stay away from it by all means.” But it didn’t pose much danger, Amery said, an assessment confirmed by the headlines in the Niagara Gazette. “Seepage Health Threat Slight,” the Gazette reported in 1977.

It was regarded as so slight, in fact, that many people in the neighborhood didn’t even hear about it — including a 26-year-old woman on 101st Street named Lois Gibbs. Her house was two blocks east of the school, where there was no black film oozing in the yard, no seepage, no odors, no buried drums and seemingly no reason to worry. In fact, that September, Lois Gibbs happily enrolled her son, Michael, in kindergarten at the school on top of the landfill.

Gibbs — a stay-at-home mother of two children — had worked hard for this moment, watching Sesame Street with Michael, teaching him his ABCs, getting him ready for the world, as mothers do. Still, somehow, Gibbs had missed something — something important. She didn’t see the little stories in the newspaper that summer about the problems that Karen Schroeder and other homeowners were having on 99th Street. She didn’t hear about LaFalce’s visit to the neighborhood just a few days after Michael started kindergarten, and she had no idea that his school had been built on top of an old canal filled with chemical drums. Caught up in the tornado of parenting, Gibbs had missed it all, and something else, too.

That fall, at the school, teachers began to wonder why basic worksheets were challenging for Michael and soon realized he had trouble distinguishing certain colors. Lois’ son appeared to be color-blind — and she was still processing the news that December when life threw her yet another unexpected problem. Over a meal at a fast-food restaurant, Michael began to twitch and struggle. Thinking he was choking on a bite of hamburger, Gibbs stuck her finger in his mouth. But there was no food to dislodge.

Michael was having a seizure.

Gibbs had no idea what to do, so she did the only thing she could: She held him. The convulsions might have lasted a minute or maybe just seconds. Later, she wouldn’t be able to recall. All she knew for sure was that when it was over, the boy vomited, went limp and fell asleep, exhausted. At home, Gibbs laid Michael down on the couch and then took him to the doctor the next day, filled with questions.

“There’s no history of epilepsy in either my family or my husband’s,” she told the doctor. “So why should Michael develop it?”

The doctor didn’t know. Sometimes these things just happened, he explained to Gibbs. He was going to prescribe the boy some medication, and then they would follow him, hoping to see improvement — a diagnosis that Gibbs begrudgingly accepted. But now she was paying attention. She was reading the newspaper. She was curious and she was asking questions, and it wasn’t long before someone suggested that Gibbs take those questions to John LaFalce’s office in Washington. There was a woman there asking questions, too: Bonnie Casper.

In the months ahead, the two women would finally meet, and when they did, both of them were exhausted. Casper felt like she was fighting everyone. “The County, City, Bd. of Ed. and Hooker,” she wrote to LaFalce at one point. And Gibbs felt the same way. By then, some of her own neighbors had turned on her. They didn’t want Gibbs out in the street shouting about the chemical landfill in the neighborhood. But neither woman intended to quit — a choice that seemed evident by the end of 1977, as the snow began to fall in western New York and people started to hang Christmas decorations in the neighborhood on the east side of Niagara Falls.

It was the last normal holiday that people here would celebrate for years.

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