From dream town to toxic dump
Gibbs began finding that connection in 1978, as she went door to door in Love Canal after learning the community sat atop a landfill of toxins. “Who would build a school on top of a dump? Who would build a playground on top of a dump? And why didn’t anyone tell me?” she asked.
The discovery ignited a woman who, growing up in Grand Island, N.Y., 15 minutes upstate from Buffalo, busied herself sewing draperies and aspiring to be a housewife. In Love Canal, her vision took root. Her husband worked at the Goodyear plant and they had two children, Michael and Melissa. This neighborhood, just miles from Niagara Falls and her childhood home, was filled with the noisy chorus of kids, two churches and mom and pop shops. Gibbs walked her children to the 99th Street Elementary School and to the playground next door each day.
Michael was born just before the family settled into a three-bedroom home on 101st Street in 1972. Healthy at birth, Michael started getting sick not long after they moved in, and each ailment became more serious. His asthma led to pneumonia, which was followed by a urinary tract disorder, and then a seizure disorder. Finally, a doctor told Lois her son had an immune system problem. Melissa, conceived in Love Canal and born three years after Michael, developed a rare blood disease. Gibbs searched for clues, but found none; she didn’t even allow soda in the house, but her children could not shake their sicknesses.
Then, one day in 1978, the Niagara Falls Gazette published a story about toxic dump sites cluttering the region. Love Canal was one, and the news screamed from the page: 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried next to the school property, underneath the playground. The now-defunct Hooker Chemical Co. had sold the site to the school board 25 years earlier, for $1. “Oh, my God!” Gibbs thought, reading the Gazette. “Every single day I took my children to the playground to play.”
Pressing to move her son to another school, Gibbs won an audience with the school board superintendent. The school chief settled into an oversized leather chair behind a broad, shiny wood desk. He seated Gibbs in a school desk normally used by kids. Sunken in her seat, she slid two doctors’ notes across the desk saying her son’s sickness could be tied to the dump, she said.
The superintendent glanced at the notes, then slid them back. “‘We’re not going to do that because of one hysterical housewife with a sick kid,’ ” he said, as Gibbs recalled it. “ ‘Well, if your kid is so sick, why don’t you go home and take care of him? Why are you running around to City Hall and the school board?’ ”
Tears streamed down Gibbs’ face. “All of a sudden, I became the bad guy.”
At home, her Irish-Catholic temper began to burn. Raised on Love Road in Grand Island, one of six children of a stay-at-home mom and union dad, Gibbs was taught to vote at election time and fly the American flag. Now, as she raised two sick children in a town smothered in waste, the government had turned its back. “After I got sad, I got mad,” she says, recalling the conversation that helped propel her on a lifetime of activism. “Don’t ever tell me I’m a bad mother.”
When neighbors answered her knock, Gibbs opened up about her children’s illnesses. In living room after living room in Love Canal, neighbors shared that they also had sick children. “It wasn’t until I went door to door that they started saying, ‘My son has asthma too, or my daughter has epilepsy,’ ” Gibbs said. “Women talked to me about birth defects.”
Residents began paying closer attention to evidence before their eyes. One couple grew squash so huge it could win prizes at a community fair; now they worried toxins bulked it up. Kids dubbed a local creek “Beverly Hillbillies” — after the show about a family that struck riches in black gold — because they could stick a piece of wood in the water and it would come up slimy black. Rocks on the ground were so explosive they would pop like firecrackers if kids threw them against a wall.
One afternoon, a child stuffed rocks in his pocket and began running home when, suddenly, the rocks caught fire and burned him severely, Gibbs said. With each story, the community began to absorb the larger picture.
“She was like a hurricane and we just kept going,” said Luella Kenny, a fellow Love Canal resident-turned activist who serves on the board of the Center for Health, Environment & Justice. “She was a housewife, and there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife, and she did not have all of this shall we say Wall Street and Washington know how the politicians had and the Wall Street investors had.”
Instead, Kenny said, Gibbs possessed a “hidden talent she wasn’t even aware of. But when push came to shove and your children are being threatened, I think you find that energy that you are going to protect them, for heaven’s sake.”
Her son, Jon Allen Kenny, the only of her three children born at Love Canal, died at age 7 in 1978 from kidney failure.
Another day, Kenny was showing health officials her backyard when a bird flew into the creek, sipped some water, and plopped down dead, she said.
Among the toxins brewing in the underground cesspool: A mix of halogenated organics, pesticides, chlororbenzenes and dioxin, according to EPA records. The community linked the chemical waste to failing health, producing charts showing high rates of miscarriages, crib deaths, birth defects, kidney and urinary failings — and nervous breakdowns.
As the evidence mounted, Gibbs pressed for answers, thinking back to the preaching of her father, a war veteran and bricklayer for Bethlehem Steel. “‘The system will work, if you play by the rules.’ ”