Pollution and the Slippery Meaning of
March 28, 2004
By ANTHONY DePALMA
WHEN the outrage over Love Canal was at its height, more
than 20 years ago, hundreds of families had to be evacuated
from their homes after 21,000 tons of chemicals buried
beneath them started oozing into their basements and
contaminating their groundwater.
Today, families are once again settled in the same
neighborhood in upstate New York, now rechristened Black
Creek Village. They live in neat, new ranch houses and
federal officials recently announced that they now consider
this notorious symbol of industrial pollution clean.
But what does clean mean when the pollutants that rendered
Love Canal dangerous to humans remain exactly where they
were? In fact, there is no accepted standard, and clean, in
practical terms, often means still polluted - but in a
different and less dangerous way.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has
deleted 278 sites from the 1,200 on the Superfund national
priorities list (the fund itself was created partly in
reaction to Love Canal). Each has been defined as clean in
a different way, and with few exceptions the offending
pollutants were never removed.
What makes the notion of clean so slippery is the relative
newness of the idea of decontaminating industrial sites and
the unpalatable truth that treating pollution, even
rendering it harmless, almost never means getting rid of
it. The sin, once committed, cannot be entirely undone, and
this is something no one really wants to hear.
Politicians "can't politically make the jump to telling the
public that they have to accept a certain amount of
contamination," said Michael B. Moore, an environmental
consultant from Vermont who is chairman of the Superfund
task force of the National Ground Water Association, a
professional group with a special interest in cleaning up
When federal officials put Love Canal on the Superfund
list, some residents thought they knew what clean meant.
"We were led to believe that they were going to go in with
bulldozers, take 20,000 tons of waste out of Love Canal and
clean up the neighborhood so we could live there," said
Lois Marie Gibbs, whose home had to be demolished because
the ground beneath it dripped with chemicals.
Never having undertaken a project like Love Canal, federal
officials had no idea how much contamination was buried
there until they started testing the soil. They quickly
realized that the volume of hazardous waste was enormous,
and that removing the rusting and dented chemical drums was
riskier than leaving them there.
Then, in a pattern followed at many other sites, the
government and the Hooker Chemical Company (now the
Occidental Chemical Corporation), capped the chemical swamp
with a thick layer of clay, installed pumps and drains to
control runoff and ripped up miles of contaminated sewer
pipe. The chemicals themselves were left in the ground,
surrounded by a cyclone fence.
Jane M. Kenny, the E.P.A. regional administrator, insisted
that no standards were lowered in removing Love Canal from
the Superfund list. Even though the chemicals haven't been
removed, she said, the $400 million cleanup has contained
the pollution and reduced the health risks, which is the
cleanup standard the agency aims for.
"I know that saying clean makes people crazy," she said,
"but in terms of Love Canal, the area is now protective of
the environment, the site is contained and we believe that
we have eliminated the exposure."
The chasm between the government's definition of clean and
community expectations hasn't narrowed in 20 years.
"If she says Love Canal's cleaned up, that's just a blatant
lie," said Ms. Gibbs, now executive director of the Center
for Health, Environment and Justice, which works with
communities facing environmental problems."
When Congress established the Superfund in 1980, it
deliberately refrained from setting a single standard,
insisting only that the E.P.A. protect health and the
environment in a cost-effective way.
The gold standard was a level of cleanliness where there
was only a one in a million chance that there would be more
cancer in the area than normal. But that was not a
practical goal at many cleanup sites, including Love Canal,
where the level of risk of additional cancers is now
reckoned at one in 10,000.
The E.P.A. will not certify a site as clean in which the
risk of additional cancers exceeds one in 10,000.
The term brownfields is another way of defining clean and
saying the politically unspeakable - that a certain amount
of contamination will always be with us. Brownfields are
former industrial sites that are cleaned just enough so the
remaining risk is compatible with the way the land will be
reused. Owners get to define clean one way if they intend
to build, say, a parking lot, and another if they plan to
It is yet another way of saying clean, and still polluted.