In the late 1970s, people living in a tiny town near Niagara Falls discovered the place they called home was teaming with toxic chemicals.
That place was called Love Canal and is the topic of “Paradise Falls,” a new book by Keith O’Brien.
O’Brien will launch his book at 7 pm, Tuesday, April 12, at the Sanctuary, 82 Main St. in Maynard. Hosted by The Silver Unicorn bookstore in Acton, the event will feature a discussion of the book by O’Brien followed by a conversation with the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental reporter David Abel, said Paul Swydan, owner of The Silver Unicorn. After the discussion there will be time for questions.
O’Brien wrote the book to remind people of the continued relevance of Love Canal and to capture the human drama behind what was one of the greatest environmental disasters of the 20th century.
“[It was] one of the great awakening moments when people began to realize for the first time that concerns about the environment weren’t abstract. They could be right in their own backyard. They could be right in their house. They could be in their water,” he said.
While it is the story of a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, it is primarily one of citizen activism “and the story of what it takes to get the attention of the powers that be,” O’Brien said.
A dream gone sour
For those who don’t know — and O’Brien says it is likely most people under the age of 40 have never heard of Love Canal — it was an abandoned canal project about four miles south of Niagara Falls. William T. Love dug the canal, dreaming the tract of land on the eastern edge of Niagara Falls, New York, could become a dream community, with hydroelectricity generated through a short canal between the upper and lower Niagara Rivers. By 1910 he had given up on the project.
From 1942 to 1953, The Hooker Chemical Company, with approval from the government, dumped nearly 22,000 tons of chemical waste in the partially dug canal. The company capped the landfill in clay and sold the land to the Niagara Falls school board for $1 with a clause the company be absolved from any future liability. In the late 1950s, about 100 homes and a school were built at the site. Roughly 800 single-family homes were also built directly adjacent to the canal. The neighborhood was called Love Canal.
More on the environment:Gas stoves are a risk to your health and emitters of dangerous pollutants
More:Mass. adding jobs in emissions fight to meet climate law requirements
At Maynard Town Meeting:Green Maynard citizens’ petition declares climate emergency; seeks to bring about change
By the late 1970s, the drums containing the chemicals had begun to erode and chemicals began seeing into backyards and causing people to become ill. There was a high rate of miscarriages and some children were born with birth defects.
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency and the government relocated 239 families. I have declared a second state of emergency in 1981, and relocated the remaining 700 families.
As he researched the story, O’Brien pored through thousands of documents, sometimes crawling through people’s attics to read old, but not forgotten transcripts. He interviewed mothers and environmentalists and dug through court records, even at one point filing a Freedom of Information Act request.
“What I’ve attempted to write here is the story of the people in this neighborhood in Niagara Falls – primarily stay-at-home moms, or as we called them at the time housewives — who in a span of two years went from being ignored by local officials, the local superintendent, the local school board to have the ear of the EPA, the White House and indeed President Carter,” he said.
Women at the forefront
“Paradise Falls” follows Luella Kenny, a mother of three, who lived about 1/10 of a mile from the northern edge of Love Canal. Now in her 80s, she remains an activist, trying to shine a light on the dangers of chemicals pose.
It is the story of Lois Gibbs, a woman O’Brien calls the “de facto leader of residents in the neighborhood in the late 1970s.”
“She was the first member of the neighborhood to try to rally some sort of organization among the residents there.
“Lois has spent the last 40 years of her life working for environmental justice at a nonprofit that she would later found in Washington, DC,” O’Brien said.
He wrote about Beverly Paigen who lived in Buffalo, New York, a biologist at the University at Buffalo. O’Brien caught up with Paigen in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she had lived for 30 years after retiring.
“Beverly is… one of those forgotten heroes. There was nothing for her to fight for here, yet she realized early on that the chemical threat in the neighborhood was much greater than authorities were letting on. Beverly put her job for her and her livelihood for her on the line to fight for residents, ”he said.
Paigen died in 2020, but not before O’Brien met with her over the course of two days.
Then there is Bonnie Casper, a young legislative aid at the time, working for Niagara Falls Congressman John LaFalce.
Casper was a driving force in DC, making sure the congressman’s office paid attention to what was happening at Niagara Falls, O’Brien said.
“When I finally tracked down Bonnie, she had saved boxes for decades. And so I went to Washington, DC and I went through Bonnie’s boxes,” he said.
When he was done — he began his research in 2019 — O’Brien had interviewed many of the people who lived at Love Canal.
“This is still the defining moment of their lives and many of the main protagonists from the story were forever changed by this two year fight and indeed became activists as a result well beyond what they were fighting for in the first place,” he said.
Info about the book launch
Tickets to the book launch are $36 and include a signed copy of the book.
All attendees must provide identification and proof they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (two weeks after the last vaccination dose) or provide proof of a negative COVID test result from a certified medical facility within 72 hours of the event. Over-the-counter test results are not accepted.
For tickets visit https://silverunicornbooks.com/events or call 978-274-2757.