My mother often talks about her sisters. She remembers growing up in, and playing alongside the Niagara River in Niagara Falls, New York. Her memories were bright and filled with loving, colorful memories of her childhood, and a loving family. I always enjoyed the stories about her sister’s best. My mother and her four sisters were pretty close in age. My three sisters and I were spaced apart, however, I always loved that my mother and I had that in common, growing up with sisters. I felt this detail always gave us even more in common.
Nearly twenty years has passed since the death of my aunt. Many relatives have since departed, yet, each year, around the anniversary of her death, my mother always has kind words of remembrance about her sister. I can feel the love and grief which she still possesses in her heart. I know my mother has never been able to have any true closure about my aunts passing. My aunt became a victim of a system that she just could not break free from. She was also a victim of a disease which consumed her very core. She predicted a plague that would consume almost every immediate member of her family. My mother asked, “Why hadn’t anyone listened to her story, and better, why hadn’t those who could have made a difference, done more to help?”
Most people are curious to know what their future will hold. It is in our human nature. The one thing my aunt knew with certainty was that if no one listened to her plight, she would have no future. Sometimes knowing is a blessing and not a curse, and to understand how and why the world works in the way it does can possibly help us to diagnose and prevent us as humans from making similar mistakes again. My aunt’s story reflects the battle which a grandmother, mother, a sister, and an aunt was desperate to fight and to find an end to a disturbing situation neither she, nor any member of her family created.
She knew if she didn’t find help, and fast, she would submit to the sicknesses she saw so many around her falling prey to. All that she wanted was someone to help her family receive relief from the pain they had endured for years. She wanted to spare her children and her grandchildren from suffering the same fate that she was suffering. Where were the governmental agencies when her children, one by one began showing signs of illness and then disease? How many letters, to so many different agencies did this woman need to write before someone gave an ounce of compassion?
Today in 2009, this news is old news; anyone can download an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report from the years- 1979, 1983, 1985, and 1994. Fact is that from 1947 to 1952 the neighborhood Chemicals and Plastic Corporation “Occidental, or as it is also known, “Hooker” Chemical dumped thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into the Love Canal site, which eventually seeped into the Niagara River, then, into the ground water, spreading its toxic mess to the surrounding waterways. This pollution was in the drinking water, people bathed in it, and this water was used to grow food which was consumed by residents of Niagara Falls and surrounding areas. This was the same water my mother and her sisters learned to swim in, the same water which nurtured thousands, now, had sickened thousands. Hooker sold the toxic land to the board of education which built a school on those very grounds, and then sold the remaining surrounding land to developers who built public housing.
From 1970-1978 residents of South and North of the Canal complained of puddles of ooze and sickening fumes seeping up from the ground. The Department of Conservation took notice and urged city officials to investigate the resident’s claims and to begin testing residential properties. April of 1978 the Love Canal was declared, “dangerous hazardous to its residents,” by New York State Department of Health, finally aware and acknowledging the tons of chemical waste that has been dumped in the Canal. This waste revealed to be PCB’s, Organ chlorine, Pesticides (OCs), Chlorinated Benzenes (CBs), and Industrial Compounds, Dioxins and Furans. Dioxins and Furans are some of the most toxic chemicals known to science. A draft report released for public comment in September 1994 by the US Environmental Protection Agency clearly describes dioxin as a serious public health threat.
The public health impact of dioxin rivals the impact that DDT had on public health in the 1960’s. According to the EPA report, not only does there appear to be no “safe” level of exposure to dioxin, but levels of dioxin and dioxin-like chemicals have been found in the general US population that are “at or near levels associated with adverse health effects.” . President of the United States from 1977-1981 Jimmy Carter, declared Love Canal a national emergency in August 1978. On December 11, 1980, President Carter signed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) into law. Commonly known as “Superfund”, this new act provided billions of dollars to clean-up environmental disaster areas. Black Creek is a tributary to Bergholtz Creek, which flows into Cayuga Creek.
Insecticides were found in fish from Gill Creek and Cayuga Creek, at Cayuga Drive exceeding the most protective wildlife criterion. These creeks were the seasonal playgrounds for anyone residing on the banks of the creeks and residential areas of the LaSalle subdivision. New York State ordered blood samples of over 2000 individuals who lived in the circle surrounding the Love Canal area. Those considered in immediate danger were evacuated. My aunt and her family remained on the opposite side of the Love Canal praying for Superman to rescue them, not because they wanted to be martyrs, they remained because they had no financial way out- they became prisoners in their home, caught up in a system of poverty, and sickness, living directly across the street from Love Canal. What neither my Aunt, nor anyone else could have foreseen was, is how the pain and neglect would follow so many of her future generations. Four out of five of my aunt’s children have all succumbed to illness and resulting in one form of cancer or another. Two of my male cousins fell victim to testicular cancer, one boy, a mere 14 years old, and another in his late 20’s.
The tragedy continues in 2009: Two years ago one of my oldest female cousins died from lung related cancer, a cancer so obscure and rare the doctors were at a loss. One of my mother’s youngest sisters are now in treatment for breast related cancer (not genetically pre-determined), she is in her early sixties. Another younger sister, one who lost her oldest daughter, is her early seventies, has been diagnosed and has had lumps removed from her breasts (again not genetically predestined) which were cancerous, she is also fighting with symptoms of Lupus. The “next” generation of illness is cropping up in some of the grandchildren. One male grandchild has battled from non-hotchkins lymphoma; he was injected with stem cells from his sister and is now in remission. When does this horror stop? How can some be compensated, and others left to fend for themselves? I cannot warm to the idea of a society that turns its back on its own.
My aunt had wished to have her story told in her own words, it became her dying wish. She longed for Superman to swoop down and make it all right. Although she was never able to get any real results or find any real answers, patiently she waited for that glimpse of hope. Sadly she died of lung related cancer just after Christmas in 1988. No longer was she, trapped in a toxic waste nightmare. In a world so swaddled in ignorance, my desire is that there can be a sense of closure for those in the midst of despair, and that love can replace the pain and sadness which encompassed more than a generation.
– And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out My spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions – (Joel 2 vs. 28).
Kerry Heming Brown, “A story of pain, loss, closure ,and love: One womans courage to find answers”
( May 4th, 2009)”
Kerry Heming Brown