Love Canal’s progeny

‘Mother of Superfund’ reflects on Montana’s toxic legacy



Once upon a time in 1978, Lois Gibbs was a young housewife in the neighborhood of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Things began to change when she discovered that her child was attending an elementary school that was built above a 20,000-ton toxic waste dump. She also discovered alarming rates of birth defects, miscarriages, cancers, and other health problems rampant in her community. After two years of battling the polluter, Occidental Petroleum, with her pleas for help falling on the deaf ears of local and federal officials, Gibbs finally prevailed when President Jimmy Carter delivered an emergency declaration that paid for the relocation of some 900 families.

Since then, Gibbs has been a full-time activist against toxic waste and a pioneer in the fusion of environmental quality and social justice into environmental justice. Her widely recognized work has shone light on the systematic discriminatory pollution practices against low-income people, often people of color, who are less likely to resist the polluting of their own backyards.

Gibbs was in Missoula this Monday visiting the University of Montana campus to give a talk entitled “Twenty-Five Years after Love Canal: Reflections on the Evolution of the Superfund.” Earlier, Gibbs spoke with the Independent about her relationship with the Superfund program, and whether it is accurate to call her, as she is so often dubbed, the “Mother of the Superfund.”

“Well” she says, “if I am the mother of the Superfund, it is no longer the healthy child I gave birth to. The original Superfund program was fabulous the way it was designed. It was funded by taxes that were levied on chemical and oil companies. The EPA’s job was first to clean up the site and then go after the responsible parties and make them pay for it. If they refused to pay, they could be sued for triple damages. That’s what Jimmy Carter and I agreed on.”

Unfortunately for the original aims of the Superfund program, she says, her “child” was abducted by President Reagan at an early age.

“Reagan thought a better approach would be to get responsible parties into a room with community members, and then negotiate a deal,” she says. “But Superfund was never supposed to be about negotiating a deal. It was about objective remediation of dangerous pollution. Now what we have is a mess of consultants and lawyers and lobbyists and controversy.”

Negotiating, Gibbs points out, requires putting a dollar amount on things whose value transcends economic terms. Negotiating assumes that everything has a price and everything is for sale. These sterile numbers get plugged into a cost/benefit analysis, which determines the direction of the negotiations. At the time of Love Canal, Gibb’s husband was assessed a value of $10,000; her son was worth the same, plus an adjustment for inflation in the coming years. Gibbs, however, was assigned a dollar value of zero, since she was “only” a housewife, like her mother, and it was assumed that a housewife was all she would ever be. Likewise, her daughter was assigned a value of zero.

The “negotiation” process fell into a rigid routine, with the majority of Superfund clean-up projects totaling about $20 million, with limited liability for the polluters. And the clean-ups were usually superficial Band-Aids. During the Reagan years, almost all Superfund dollars went to Republican districts—a practice for which two members of the Reagan administration went to jail for misusing funds.

On the brighter side, in 1986, federal “Right to Know” legislation was attached to the Superfund program, allowing the public better access, by zip code, to information on which toxins are emitted by existing polluting facilities. But since 9/11, President Bush wants to take this information out of the public’s hands, claiming that it might be misused by terrorists.

Meanwhile, the corporate Superfund tax expired in 1995, despite Clinton’s attempts to re-authorize it. Now the Superfund program is funded by general tax revenue, competing with schools and human services and whatnot.

Not surprisingly, “the Mother of Superfund” has plenty to say about the mother of all Superfund sites, the Clark Fork River and the Milltown Dam.

“When I first visited Milltown 18 years ago, parents were concerned about the fact that their children’s teeth didn’t have enamel because of the water. The water supply was switched, but then that too was found to be contaminated. We need to clean up the contaminants and then remove the dam. They are doing something similar on the Hudson River in New York [dredging 40 miles of PCB laden sludge behind the Thompson Dam]. In Wyoming,” she says, “They are temporarily diverting a river through a pipe. If they can pipe oil, they can pipe water.

“And in Libby,” she says, of western Montana’s newest claim to Superfame, “there is no way that people can continue to live there and not be re-contaminated. Asbestos fibers are in their carpets, in their furniture. It’s in their land, it’s everywhere. Even if you raked the top off of the land of the entire community, it would still be there. I think the only way to really deal with it is to move those families somewhere, give everybody who wants to move the option to move, and provide long-term health monitoring and benefits for everyone who was exposed.”

By comparison, she says, “One side of one of the World Trade Center towers was insulated with asbestos, before asbestos insulation was made illegal. Since the tower collapsed, P.S. 89 and several apartments have been declared unsafe due to asbestos contamination. But all of that asbestos is a drop in the bucket compared to Libby.”

Gibb’s organization, The Center for Health, Environment and Justice ( specializes in “rebuilding democracy,” by assisting grassroots groups in taking a stand against corporate environmental injustice.

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