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Stony Hearts and Love Canal

The story of Love Canal, New York, is an interesting example of how human nature works to create an environmental tragedy.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) study has turned up an abnormally high incidence of serious genetic damage among a sample of area residents. The miscarriage rate among women almost tripled from what it was before they moved in. And informal surveys by area residents show an incredibly high rate of abnormal pregnancies by women who gave birth in recent years.

In the late 1800s, entrepreneur William Love began the project of digging a hydroelectric canal in the Niagara Falls area. The project was later abandoned, but not before a 3,200-foot section had been dug. It was in this section that the Hooker Chemical Company, as well as the U.S. Army, dumped thousands of 55-gallon drums containing toxic wastes beginning in World War II. Hooker claims that soil in the area — impermeable clay — made the canal a wise choice for a dump site.

In 1953, Hooker sold the property to the local school board for $1. There is some dispute over whether, before the sale, Hooker covered the dump with clay or just a combination of fly ash and dirt. There is also some mystery as to why Hooker sold out so cheaply.

Eric Zuesse, writing an article basically favorable to Hooker in Reason magazine, February, 1981, speculates that the company's decision to deed over the property instead of letting it be taken by threat of condemnation by the school board was an act of concern for future owners. By deeding over the property, the company was able to put a warning in the deed itself of the risk of the toxic waste dumped on the property, as well as try to absolve itself of responsibility for the site. The deed states that the buyer "assumes all risk and liability incident to the use" of the property. It also recites that the buyer (school board) has been "advised" that the site was used for chemical dumping.

In any case, the local school board took over the property in 1953. Mr. Zuesse points out that on several occasions since 1953 there was construction in the dump area that disturbed the waste, possibly causing it to escape. In 1953 and 1954, dirt was removed from the canal to be used as fill at a school construction site elsewhere. In 1957, city workers installed a sewer through the canal, puncturing the walls and clay cover. (Whether chemicals were buried at that exact location is not revealed)

In 1960, the school board gave part of the canal to the city and the rest was sold to a private person in 1962, who was unable to develop the property because he could not get a building permit. In 1968, the canal was again disturbed, this time to build an expressway and work on a street adjacent to the property.

The point of these facts is not to fix blame (the courts will have plenty of time for that) but to point out that the responsibility for the care and good management of the Love Canal dump site was just too fuzzy. Just as communal kitchens often become dirty messes because its users figure someone else will clean up after them, no individual or group of individuals felt personally responsible for the good care of the dangerous, toxic dump at Love Canal. Was Hooker's warning on the deed good enough to absolve it of responsibility? How much exactly did the school board know about the dump? These questions are all grist for the legal mill.

What they do show is that everyone assumed responsibility for the dump site was someone else's job.

In this world, in which man has turned his back on his Maker, personal legal responsibility works as a substitute for genuine love. The legal system assumes people will act out of fear of a policeman coming and putting them in jail or taking away their property, but not necessarily because of a genuine concern for others as human beings.

In this world, it takes ownership to create a measure of responsibility. In a better world soon to come, love would do the same — only better. Instead of endless court fights trying to pin the blame on some hapless party, all parties concerned would have tried to do right by their fellow man from the beginning.

In the World Tomorrow, people's hearts will be changed. In that future world, God told the prophet Jeremiah, "I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts" (Jer. 31:33). In a similar message given to the prophet Ezekiel, God said, "I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit within you . . ." (Ez. 36:26-27). Such a world will not need legions of property lawyers and judges to straighten out what would never have been allowed to happen in the first place.