NIAGARA FALLS, N.Y. (WIVB) — Neatly nestled off the LaSalle Expressway in a quiet corner on the edge of Niagara Falls visitors find Love Canal. The site looks more like a golf course, than a toxic burial ground. Dozens of wells offer the only hint of 21,000 tons of waste buried below.
Dozens of groups visit every year, eager to tour the site of one of American’s worst chemical catastrophes.
EPA scientists claim the Love Canal waste is carefully capped and contained. Last fall, News 4 reported on the EPA’s tours of the site.
“I think that I have insulated myself against feelings as I walk the neighborhood. I am affected as I show people the playground, and I make sure I show people, the fence is here, and the playground is here,” Luella Kenny admitted. The Niagara Falls native offers tours of the site to groups from near and far.
Kenny’s tours provide a different perspective. She contacted News 4, anxious to respond to the EPA story, and offering to do her first local television interview in many years.
Luella Kenny and her husband purchased a home at the corner of 96th and Greenwald. “We had an acre of land in the city. I mean we had a very nice house, and we thought it was a nice place. I had three boys. They could play there, and it was just great.”
Kenny gave birth to her youngest, Jon Allen, after moving into the neighborhood. “He was my baby. He had dark black curly hair and he just bounced around. And he was a sweet little boy, and a very considerate little boy,” she recalled, speaking to News 4 from her Grand Island home.
Jon got sick in the summer of 1978 and never recovered.
“He was diagnosed with the disease on July 1, 1978. It just turned into an absolute disaster. He would go into remission when he was in the hospital, and he would play in the backyard, and have another relapse, and this kept going on… back and forth. People kept saying is it related to all those chemicals, and I said no, we’re a block and a half away.”
That distance offered little comfort as chaos consumed her neighborhood. “[Neighbors] were starting to panic, they were starting to move, and i mean it was a scary time,” Kenny recalled.
Within three months, Jon died. Doctors blamed a form of kidney disease. They never definitely linked to Love Canal chemicals.
Searching for answers
The young mother remembers reaching out, to anyone who would listen and pleading for help.
“My backyard was highly contaminated. It had 32 parts per billion of dioxin that they found there in the backyard. I called the State Department of Health once, and they said, well, Mrs. Kenny, it’s most likely that your son did die from the chemicals, but they never said that again. Somebody made a mistake,” she explained.
A mistake, perhaps, or someone simply telling the truth to a grieving mother. Less than a year later, the Kennys joined hundreds of other families and moved into motels.
A federal buyout followed in 1981. Yet, Luella never let Love Canal fade from her mind.
“I have to be strong. I have to do it. I mean what’s inside of me is inside of me, but it’s important to me that I don’t see other children and the same thing happening to them.”
A Mother’s mission
Kenny decided to turn her heartache, into a legacy of love. Luella has spent the past 32 years helping administer the Love Canal Medical Fund.
“We pay out-of-pocket expenses for diseases that are related to exposure to chemicals at Love Canal. It’s limited to the original beneficiaries. 32 years later, we’ve paid out $1.5 million in claims,” Kenny explained.
She does it all, she says, for Jon’s memory.
Part of that mission involves the tours and advocacy. “I don’t take any remuneration for anything. I just do it. If anything, I’m losing money, but it’s something that’s very important to me that I will battle on and on.”
The EPA eventually allowed hundreds of families to move back into homes north of Colvin Boulevard. It’s a decision that still angers Kenny.
EPA spokesperson Mike Basile insists the site is safe and says the cap of chemicals is not leaking.
“There’s over 200 monitoring wells on the property and we have a series of wells in the community, off the streets as well, that we monitor,” Basile explained.
“We demolished a school and 239 homes. All of that debris sits and makes up the 70 acre cap. Over it, we have a synthetic liner, and multiple liners, as well clay, topsoil and grass” Basile said.
More than a thousand people have joined 18 new civil lawsuits connected to Love Canal. The plaintiffs say the dangerous chemicals ruined their lives and impacted their health. Their lawyer from New York City declined to comment for our story. He also will not allow any of his clients to do interviews, until the cases are resolved.
Kenny’s final words
“I’m ashamed to say it’s difficult for me to forgive [Occidental Chemical Corporation] and I know I probably should; it’s just difficult,” Kenny admitted.
Occidental (formerly known as Hooker Chemical) buried barrels of chemicals at Love Canal between 1942 and 1953. The land, complete with 21-thousand tons of toxic waste, was sold to the school board for $1.00. The transfer deed included a warning not to build the school on top of the old canal.
Kenny believes the EPA is in denial. She points to monitoring of the wells at the site that are paid for by a subsidiary of Occidental.
Time hasn’t erased her pain, and it won’t take away her zeal for sharing her story. She vows to keep offering lectures and tours to groups near and far, sharing the wisdom of a mom who will never forget.
“I talk about it because I worry about other children, Kenny said.