It’s hard to talk about Love Canal without bringing up the name Lois Gibbs.
The Niagara Falls wife and mother was thrust into the spotlight in the late 1970s; becoming the leader of Love Canal residents fighting for answers and for their safety.
“This neighborhood, it’s just hard to imagine now because you could hear a pin drop right? This neighborhood was just loud,” Gibbs said in November, walking the fence of her former home.
It was where Gibbs thought she’d raise her kids and grow old. What she, and hundreds of others didn’t know when they moved in — was that their homes sat atop toxic industrial waste, dumped there by Hooker Chemical years prior.
“We had 56 percent of our children born with birth defects,” Gibbs said.
It was then, that she became the reluctant leader of hundreds of families.
“Somebody could have stepped up to the plate too I thinkm, if I had not. We didn’t have any choice.”
Public meeting after public meeting; residents started looking to Gibbs. She was on a mission; to get her family out of Love Canal, and get answers. Why were people getting sick, and what was being done about it?
“So many people’s dreams were destroyed. So many people’s lives,” she told News 4, walking along the chain link fence that encloses her former neighborhood, now a Superfund site.
In 1978 the federal government declared Love Canal a health emergency, and started to evacuate some 700 families. Gibbs didn’t get out until 1980; she was part of a third wave of evacuations.
Watching her neighbors and friends get out before her she said, was painful.
“You had to go and put your children around the kitchen table in the contaminated home and feed them dinner that night after you helped pack a neighbor.”
Her persistance as the president of the Love Canal Homeowner’s Association garnered her a reputation.
She refused to move during one public meeting in Niagara Falls, telling law enforcment she wanted answers.
To some, she was radical. To others, she was their only hope..
Gibbs once famously held an EPA representative hostage. She wouldn’t let him out of the office without some action from Washington.
“That thing is such a blur. I mean that was spontaneous, that was not a planned event,” she told News 4.
Gibbs actually tried to find the man years later in New York City, but learned he had passed away.
Love Canal led to widespread research about birth defects and fertility issues associated with longterm exposure to toxic waste
“We opened that whole area of science study.”
Love Canal today is a 70-acre ghost town, where some toxic waste remained buried, but capped and contained according to the EPA.
Gibbs speaks publically about her experience locally and around the country to this day.
Decades ago she started an environmental advocacy organization outside D.C. that helps communities around the country.
“Someone looked at me and said you don’t know how to do that. And I said I didn’t know how to fight toxics either and we did that,” she laughed.
There are still several civil lawsuits in litigation pertaining to Love Canal.
Click here to learn more about the Love Canal environmental disaster and its aftermath.