Revisiting Love Canal

On New Jersey's Newark Bay, millions of urban blacks, Hispanics and Portuguese Americans watch as a nightmarish page from the history of industrial pollution resurfaces near their homes. Their plight offers a lesson to the nation and the world.

Newark Bay's disturbing sense of déjà vu stems from 1978, when the blue-collar community of Love Canal, N.Y, saw its children sicken at a terrifying rate and learned that its homes were built beside a toxic waste dump. Residents pleaded for government help, but aid was slow in coming. Polluter Hooker Chemical stalled the regulatory machinery. Its lawyers denied the science that linked deadly waste to dying children, and the company avoided full payment for cleanup until 1995.

To assure that Love Canal would never happen again, Congress passed the Superfund Law in 1980 -- landmark federal legislation meant to make polluters pay for the harm they do.

Fast forward to Newark Bay, November 2003. Three conservation organizations announce plans to sue polluter Tierra Solutions within 90 days, for what the groups say is the worst case of in-water dioxin pollution in the United States -- maybe the world.

Jump ahead to Friday, Feb. 13, 2004. The groups -- NY/NJ Baykeeper, Hackensack Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council -- find the toxic and legal legacy of Love Canal lapping at their doorstep.

Three days before the citizen suit is to take effect, the Bush EPA rushes in. It pre-empts the suit, shuts out the citizens and after more than a decade of inaction, cuts a deal with the polluter, allowing Tierra to conduct its own Newark Bay study. As one enraged activist put it, the decision is akin to "letting a pedophile investigate child abuse at a preschool."

A Dangerous Precedent

"I'm outraged," said Baykeeper Andy Willner, a party to the suit. "I have little faith in EPA's ability to oversee a fair evaluation of the Bay, and no faith at all in Occidental's compliance with this order. Occidental's only reason for signing with EPA is to avoid the citizen suit and delay the clean up."

"This sets a dangerous precedent," said Hackensack Riverkeeper Bill Sheehan, another plaintiff. "The EPA's action sends a chilling message to citizens who want to protect their right to a clean environment, and protect their children from polluters."

"I have no faith that [the contamination] will be remediated," NRDC attorney Jen Danis said flatly to the Associated Press, offering as proof an earlier 10-year Passaic River study run by the polluter that produced nothing but smoke.

As Willner and Sheehan note, there's more than coincidence linking Love Canal with Newark Bay. Both Hooker Chemical and Tierra Solutions, it turns out, are subsidiaries of the same hydra-headed monster: Occidental Petroleum, one of the planet's most heinous polluters.

In a just world, the bad press and bad karma generated by Love Canal should have bankrupted Occidental. Instead the company learned from history and thrives. With $9 billion in annual sales and 27 percent growth last year, it profits by a strategy common to transnational corporations since the Reagan era. It donates to electable politicians from both parties and gets huge returns on investment, no matter who wins. The company is among the top 15 contributors to federal election campaigns, giving more than $1.5 billion between 1995 and 2000.

The political favors Occidental gains from these gifts keep it well subsidized by government -- and insulated from prosecution for harm done to the environment and public health in the United States and globally.

Witness Democratic Vice President Al Gore, who forged strong financial ties to Occidental decades ago. In 1996, Gore paid back the company, brokering a deal to sell it the federally owned Elk Hill Oil Field in California -- the biggest turnover of U.S. public lands to a private corporation ever. Paradoxically, as Gore quietly tripled the size of Occidental's U.S. oil reserve, he lashed out against the "terrifying prospect" of fossil fuel-caused global warming.

Also witness Republican George W. Bush, whose run for Texas governor was well bankrolled by Occidental and other polluters. Once elected, Bush held secret meetings with the state's dirtiest industries, concocted a "voluntary pollution permitting program" that barely curbed emissions -- a program that let Occidental's chemical plants keep spewing a million pounds of poisons into Texas skies annually. Maybe it was as a "thank you," that retired Occidental Chemical Division CEO J. Roger Hirl raised $100,000 for Bush's 2000 presidential bid.

Far-Reaching Influence

Next, travel to Colombia to see the huge influence transnational companies can have on the molding of U.S. foreign policy. Under the guise of the War on Drugs and War on Terror, Occidental -- with partners Enron and Bechtel -- has gained full U.S. protection for its oil ventures.

Between 1996 and 2000, Occidental spent $8.6 million lobbying for U.S. foreign aid to Colombia. This year's package is set at nearly $600 million, including $147 million to protect Occidental's Cano Limon pipeline from rebel insurgents. That's equal to a U.S. taxpayer subsidy of $4.50 on every barrel of Occidental oil, according to Amazon Watch, an NGO. Since 1986, rebel attacks on the pipeline have leaked 2.9 million barrels of crude into the rain forests, an ecological disaster 11 times larger than the Exxon Valdez.

So notorious is Occidental's environmental record in Colombia that 5,000 U'wa tribespeople threatened mass suicide in 1997 rather than let the company drill on their sacred lands. The U'wa also claim that Occidental's surveillance planes assisted the Colombian army in targeting a peasant village, massacring 18 innocents and finding no rebels -- an alleged crime for which the U'wa are suing the company.

A recent look at Congress finds Occidental meddling with legislation at the cost of U.S. national security. The chemical industry, with Bush support, successfully lobbied to kill a post-9/11 bill by Sen. Jon Corzine, D-N.J., to heighten security against terror attacks at U.S. chemical plants. Legislators were well rewarded for their vote. Occidental paid out $238,000 in soft money to Republican candidates and $60,000 to Democrats in 2002, says the Center for Responsive Politics.

Finally, travel to Love Canal on Newark Bay, to a derelict factory in the Portuguese working-class section of Newark, on a Passaic River bend. Here in the '60s, Diamond Alkali Company (renamed Diamond Shamrock) made Agent Orange, the herbicide that disabled thousands of U.S. GIs, (some compensated by the Pentagon), plus many more Vietnamese peasants (never compensated).

In 1992, investigators revealed that Diamond's Newark plant knowingly contaminated its personnel with dioxin, the deadliest of synthetic chemicals. Workers were disfigured. Others sickened and died. Though more responsible chemical corporations eliminated dioxin from their manufacturing waste, Diamond did not, since that would have slowed production.

Instead the company in a sense "launched" Agent Orange as a weapon against the citizens of Newark. A deadly dioxin cocktail formed a perpetual slippery film on the factory floor. "Every other week or so" workers were ordered to hose the floors with sulfuric acid. The poison flowed into trenches, into the Passaic River, and eventually to Newark Bay and beyond.

So much toxic waste went through the plant's industrial sewer that it formed a reef in the river. Employees were directed to surreptitiously wade in, and with shovels "chop up" the toxic deposits so the reef wouldn't attract attention.

In 1983, New Jersey discovered the contamination, shut the factory, and Republican Gov. Tom Kean declared a state of emergency. Regulators rushed to vacuum poisoned city streets, capped 10,000 cubic yards of deadly waste, fenced the plant and posted a 24-hour guard. Both the factory and Passaic River were declared federal Superfund sites, though the EPA did nothing to clean up the waterway.

Ducking Responsibility

In 1986, Occidental bought Diamond Shamrock, knowing that under Superfund Law, the purchase made it liable for the river cleanup. But though the company collected Diamond's profits, it stonewalled on the Passaic, using the same winning strategies it learned at Love Canal. And still the EPA did nothing.

Meanwhile the Newark plant's signature type of dioxin spread as far as the Statue of Liberty, contaminating fish to unprecedented levels. In 2002, New Jersey found that eating even small quantities of Newark Bay blue crabs assured a 100 percent cancer risk. But non-English speaking urban immigrants, not knowing the danger, still pluck the shellfish from the waters and feed their families on poisoned crab.

Fearing litigation, Occidental sought more government favors to sidestep its responsibilities. Through subsidiary Chemical Land Holdings, it gave $200,000 to Washington, DC, lobbyist Dawson and Associates to pressure lawmakers to approve a corporate welfare scam ironically named the "Passaic River Restoration Initiative." The plan would force taxpayers to foot most of the bill for the Newark Bay cleanup, letting Occidental off the hook. If approved, PRRI could set a precedent for polluter amnesty across America.

Of course, Occidental isn't alone in its rogue corporate behavior. It is joined by transnational companies like Halliburton, Exxon and the ghost of Enron. All use wealth and influence to garner political privilege. All are accused of arrogant disregard for democracy, human rights, public health, worker safety, indigenous peoples and the United States and global environment.

All remain zealously defended by our government. This winter, as the EPA finally de-listed Love Canal as a Superfund site, declaring it clean, the administration took steps calculated to leave U.S. communities defenseless against big polluters. It not only shielded Occidental from the Newark Bay citizen suit, but failed to reauthorize Superfund -- bankrupting the program and freeing polluters of financial responsibility.

Enough. It is time to return the United States to its citizens and to law-abiding companies.

But to do so we must face the past. We need to travel the bleak trail down which companies like Occidental sent their victims, learning from veterans and Vietnamese citizens poisoned by Agent Orange, blue-collar children sickened by toxic waste, Newark Bay workers and immigrants dying of cancer, and violated indigenous peoples in Colombia. If we don't, we'll be doomed to replay Love Canal's horrors.

Americans should demand nothing less than the demise of transnational companies that assault the public good to profit the bottom line. We who have been unjustly taxed to provide huge subsidies to polluting industries that violate human rights must insist on answers to the same questions that a peasant survivor of the alleged Occidental/Colombian Army air raid asked:

"As a family member of the victims, as a witness, and a survivor, I seek the truth, justice, and reparations for the damages that were caused to my family... I am here to ask you, Occidental... what was your role? Why was our village bombed? I believe I have the right to know exactly what happened."

As our president and Congress reward rogue companies that soil the land, water, air and our nation's flag, we too have the right to demand answers and justice.

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