Produced by: Dan Telvock
Photography by: Jeff Helmick
When Varsha Kraus left the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara Falls with her husband and three young children in 1981, she thought she was leaving a nightmare behind.
The family moved into a subdivision five miles east of the manmade environmental disaster that led to a federal declaration of emergency and thousand of evacuations.
They thought they were moving away from the problem. It turns out, that wasn’t entirely true.
“When Love Canal burst open, why didn’t someone say hey we have these chemicals here too?”
It’s a question Varsha now can’t stop wondering, and one she’s yet to get an answer to.
After Love Canal, the Krauses moved to a home on Forbes Street in North Tonawanda, not far from the Niagara Sanitation Landfill.
“We had made sure that we were moving into a safe place just for the kids, just because of where we were coming from,” Varsha told News 4.
Her youngest daughter Sarah, who lives with her on Forbes Street, has vivid memories of Love Canal, most of which is now an uninhabitable fenced-in Superfund site.
“I also have a memory of my neighbor grabbing a box of kitchen matches and lighting them, throwing them on a pile of dirt and the dirt igniting in green,” Sarah said.
Fast forward to 2014. The Krauses, along with dozens of other residents near the Wheatfield-North Tonawanda border, find out leftover toxic Love Canal-related waste buried in the Niagara Sanitation Landfill, is cause for concern.
“How could they do this?” Varsha remembers wondering.
The state’s DEC completed three investigations of the landfill in the 1980s, and found it did not pose a risk to nearby residents.
But in 2015, the DEC reclassified the landfill as a Class 2 Superfund site, which indicates that it poses a significant threat to public health or the environment. The DEC made this determination after the waste was removed.
When the Krauses learned Occidental Chemical would be removing the waste from the landfill, they felt as if they were reliving the horrors of Love Canal all over again.
“That was one of the hardest moments of my life. My mother and I looked at each other with tears in our eyes and said thank God your father’s not here. My father had just passed the year before. Because this would have killed him,” Sarah Kraus said.
“After more than 30-some odd years, to get hit with it again. And it took me so long to try to forget about living in Love Canal,” Varsha told News 4.
That landfill is where Sarah Kraus spent much of her youth.
“We did a lot of dirt biking, a lot of teenage hanging out, fire pits.”
She even remembers sitting on a 55-gallon old chemical drum during those fire pits. A seat she recalls, as being the best around the fire.
The Town of Wheatfield, which owns the landfill, recently put up a chain link fence around the 20-acre landfill site to limit trespassing. The DEC also has monitoring wells inside the landfill.
“The fence… it prevents you from going there but it doesn’t tell you why you can’t go in,” Sarah said.
Both she and her mom are plagued with health issues.
Sarah, who is now 40-years-old, hasn’t been able to work in years. In 2012, she had a large tumor removed.
“It was a one-pound tumor. It had entangled all of my reproductive organs so I ended up with a full hysterectomy,” she said.
Back then, she never thought anything but Love Canal could be responsible for her medical problems.
“If there was something odd and suspicious, it was I was born in Love Canal. I spent my first years in Love Canal and that could be a reason.”
Since 2014 though, she started thinking differently.
“It’s going to kill me, for sure,” Sarah said of her current home.
According to the DEC, an investigation into the Niagara Sanitation Landfill site was finished earlier this year.
In a statement, the agency said: “The topline results of expanded surface soil, subsurface soil, and groundwater sampling conducted at properties both on- and off-site, indicate that landfill contaminants do not present an off-site exposure concern to neighboring properties.”
This does little to reassure the Krauses, who want the inside of their home tested too.
“We call the DEC, we have chemicals in our house. We want them to test. They refuse. They’ve done minor testing on private property. Not my property, other people’s property that go two inches into the ground,” Sarah Kraus said.
A quick walk into their basement, it’s not hard to understand why they want the interior tested.
“This is a good example of the orange stuff growing,” Sarah said, as she pointed to a thick, rust-colored gunk in a basement drainage pipe.
Over the years, many of the Kraus’ neighbors have sold their homes. But for them, they said it’s not an option.
“I was asked about my house because there are people who would love to move into a big house like this. I thought about it, but I can’t do it morally,” Varsha said.
So Forbes Street is where they’ll stay.
The Krauses, along with several other families, are involved in a class action lawsuit against the Town of Wheatfield and the companies believed to have dumped there.
The DEC will continue to monitor the site. The agency maintains residents in the area are not at risk.
The DEC instructs residents who remained concerned about their property’s interior to reach out to the state Department of Health.
In a statement, the DOH said:
“The Department of Health reviewed a substantial amount of data that was collected during the Remedial Investigation of this site. The testing of home interiors is done when data indicates that contamination has migrated off-site onto private properties, which is not the case for this site. Department of Health staff are available to answer any site-related health questions community members may have.”
The DEC is planning to hold a public meeting where it will discuss the findings of its recent study.
A public meeting was promised in the spring, but never occurred. DEC officials would not say why.
“Someone should be held accountable for it,” Sarah said.