On the eastern edge of Niagara Falls, N.Y., 100 homes and a public school stood on Love Canal — an unfitting name for a ditch filled with industrial waste that had been covered over with earth and sold for $1. The three blocks of working-class households looked like any other community, but in basements and backyards, residents found carcinogenic compounds seeping through the soil, leached out of the rotting drum containers buried underneath.
“Trees and gardens were turning black and dying. One entire swimming pool had been popped up from its foundation, afloat now on a small sea of chemicals,” recounts Eckardt Beck, an EPA administrator in the 1970s. “Everywhere the air had a faint, choking smell. Children returned from play[ing] with burns on their hands and faces.”
The environmental calamity at Love Canal prompted officials to launch a national cleanup of the country’s most toxic wastelands. The program — the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund, named for a trust fund bolstered by taxes on petroleum and chemical products — promised long-term remediation for dangerous sites and gave the agency power to bill offending companies for the costs. Since its inception in 1981, 387 sites have been officially cleared. But chronic underfunding — the petro-chemical taxes expired in 1995 — has weakened the EPA’s efforts. Most funding goes to less than a dozen major projects, even though there’s still 1,322 sites in need of further detox, according to an EPA spokesperson.
Despite the odds, here are seven projects that prove a cleaner future is possible and that the residents of Love Canal didn’t suffer for naught.