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May 21, 2021 HUMAN RIGHTS

Human Rights Hero: The Mother of Superfund

by Emily Bergeron

Lois Gibbs was living the American dream. She grew up one of six children in Grand Island, New York, married soon after graduating from high school, and shared two children—Michael and Melissa—with her husband. In 1972, the family moved into a three-bedroom home in the Love Canal neighborhood in Niagara. It would take nearly eight years for Gibbs to discover that buried beneath her son’s elementary school was more than 20,000 tons of toxic chemical waste.

Hooker Chemical Company, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum, had used Love Canal as an industrial dump for dozens of compounds, 12 of which were suspected carcinogens. Hooker’s waste permeated stream beds, contaminated the local water supply, and leached up through the soil into backyards, basements, and the public schoolyard. Neighborhood accounts describe corroding waste disposal drums breaking through grounds eroded by heavy rainfall, trees, and gardens dying, and puddles of noxious substances. Clusters of unexplainable illnesses and congenital disabilities plagued the community, including Gibbs’ son.

After identifying this toxic chemical exposure as the root of her community’s health crises, the young mother transformed into the strong-minded grassroots organizer who would become known as the Mother of Superfund. Fighting for her family and her home, Gibbs formed the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA), leading the community in a battle against local, state, and federal governments. Gibbs and her organization held rallies, raised money, conducted research, staged protests, made public speeches, and used the media to confront government bureaucracy and push for the permanent relocation of Love Canal families. Two years of tireless efforts from Gibbs and the LCHA resulted in President Jimmy Carter’s October 1980 announcement that the government would purchase Love Canal homes at fair market value—a combined value of $15 million. The federal government eventually evacuated more than 800 families, and cleanup of Love Canal began.

National press coverage of the disaster made Gibbs a household name. She received thousands of letters from across the country asking for advice on how to resolve toxic waste problems. In response, Gibbs formed the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste in 1980, which would become the Center for Health, Environment and Justice (CHEJ). 

The “environmental justice” movement began in 1968 with the Memphis Sanitation strike and exploded with sit-ins against the Warren County, North Carolina, PCB landfill; however, the work of Lois Gibbs in Niagara, New York, advanced the cause significantly. Love Canal emerged as a symbol of the looming environmental disasters that could occur at toxic waste sites scattered across the country, and Gibbs’ work was instrumental in the creation of the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act of 1986. Gibbs continues to aid in grassroots campaigns for the health and safety of children and communities at risk, seeking to empower citizens to advocate for themselves for a clean, healthy environment and for a role in the decision-making process. CHEJ has assisted thousands of grassroots groups in stopping existing polluters and preventing new sites from being developed.

Emily Bergeron is an assistant professor in the Department of Historic Preservation at the University of Kentucky. She is also co-chair of the ABA's Civil Rights and Social Justice Section Environmental Justice Committee.