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Congressional Testimony on Love Canal

June 22, 2010 — Subcommittee on Superfund, Toxics and Environmental Health of the Committee on Environment and Public Works of the US Senate, Washington DC


I want to thank you and the members of the Committee for inviting me here. My name is Lois Gibbs, and I am Executive Director for the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. It is a national organization that has worked with over 10,000 community groups faced with environmental health threats over the past 30 years. I also was a resident and community leader at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York.

And as I began preparing my testimony for this afternoon it occurred to me that 31 years ago I spoke to a congressional Committee just like this, at a table just like this, asking for funding designed for the assessment and the clean up of hazardous waste sites. My community at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York, was in part the impetus for creating the Superfund program after 20,000 tons of chemicals buried in the middle of my neighborhood leaked into the surrounding yards and the school playground.

I spoke then about the need of the program because at Love Canal 56 percent of our children were born with birth defects, and my daughter and my son were home at the time with liver, urinary, and central nervous system diseases.

Another speaker at that same hearing was Jim McCarthy from Jackson Township, New Jersey. And Jim, with tears running down his face, shared his story with the Committee. He explained that the water his family used every day was contaminated. Jim then told the Committee how his 9-year-old daughter died from a kidney disease that he believed was a result of her drinking and bathing in that contaminated water.

It is tragic that now, three decades later, while the same crisis exists within hundreds of communities or thousands of communities probably, I have been asked again to speak to the need of an adequate Superfund program.

Over the past 30 years Superfund has had its successes and failures. And I believe there were many more successes than failures when the program was adequately funded and the polluter pay fees were in place. There is no question about the need for the Superfund program and the need to have reliable, adequate funding in place to protect the American people and their communities.

Let me explain to you what it is like to live in a community that is a Superfund community. And I will give you the example, you actually have a copy of this, a pretty colored copy of this, in your copy of my testimony. This is Behr Dayton Thermal Products. It is a manufacturing plant located in Dayton, Ohio. This facility made vehicle air conditioning and engine cooling systems. The Chrysler Corporation, now in bankruptcy, owned and operated this facility from 1937 until April 2002.

The groundwater beneath this plant was tested in 2003 and found to be contaminated with volatile organic compounds including the solvent trichloroethylene or TCE. Polluted groundwater from beneath the plant has migrated underground into residential, commercial, and industrial areas.

More testing happened in October and November 2006, and the EPA, at that time the Ohio EPA, asked U.S. EPA Region 5 Superfund Division to come in and help. And what they said, and I quote this, TCE concentrations in soil gases were as high as 160,000 parts per billion, and the U.S. samples of TCE showed concentrations of 62,000 parts per billion, and they were as high as 3,900 parts per billion beneath the residential area.

Now, ATSDR says exposure to this chemical, the safe level, is .4 parts per billion, and the action level is 100 parts per billion. They also go on to say that breathing small amounts may cause headaches, lung irritation, dizziness, poor coordination, and difficulty concentrating. Breathing large amounts can impair your heart function, cause unconsciousness and death. The diseases in this community are related, the
cancer is increased related to TCE exposure.

People in this community remain in their homes as TCE vapors evaporate from the ground and are going into their homes. They put a vapor intrusion pipe up the side of their houses to take it from beneath their homes and into the ambient air.

This community is a typical Superfund community. Families are told that their vented homes are safe. However, parents worry about the safety of their children sitting in the grass in their backyard breathing the chemicals as they evaporate from the soil on a hot summer day like today.

The neighborhood school was closed, and the children were transferred to another school outside the plume. ATSDR reviewed the cancer incidence and found it to be high. Residents asked ATSDR what does this mean for my family, and nobody can tell them.

These hardworking American families’ homes are worthless. They cannot sell them, they cannot improve them, they cannot abandon them, and they do not feel like they can live in them. No bank will give the families a loan against their homes, so their families cannot fix the roof, improve the property, or even use the equity from their homes to send their children to college. Property values have already dropped 50 percent.

These are not people looking for a free ride or a handout. They are hardworking, churchgoing American families. They have been victimized by no fault of their own. This is not the way our country should treat its citizens.

For 30 years I have urged, begged, pleaded with Congress to take care of these innocent families who have fallen victim to corporate negligence and carelessness. As you continue to discuss the Superfund program please remember the people, their dreams, their hopes for their families to be able to reach their potential.

Restore the polluter pays fees so that there is a reliable source of funding to provide the necessary assistance to protect the innocent American people.

Thank you.