After decades, judge undaunted on residents' concerns at Love Canal

After decades, judge undaunted on residents' concerns at Love Canal

Source: Buffalo News, February 25, 2013
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The federal judge who oversaw the Love Canal lawsuit for nearly two decades has asked state and federal officials for a “detailed response and plan of action” on how to correct any difficulties that might still exist in the neighborhood surrounding the 21,800-ton chemical landfill.

U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin said he was “very concerned” by allegations that some neighborhood residents have made about Love Canal in a recent series in The Buffalo News.

Curtin said government officials assured him many years ago that the toxic wastes buried at Love Canal were safely sealed off from the surrounding neighborhood, where hundreds of families live and where a senior citizen center, playground, youth baseball fields and a senior citizen apartments complex were built.

The judge said he was alarmed by resident complaints that chemicals are leaking from the landfill and contaminating their homes.

Government officials who oversee the landfill insist that the neighborhood is safe and that no chemicals have leaked from the site.

“I am concerned,” the 91-year-old judge said in an interview. “We had a very important order in our case here at federal court, and I want to be sure that it’s being carried out effectively. I want a full report from the state and federal authorities to see what is going on there.”

Curtin’s letter went out Feb. 15 to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Justice Department and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In a letter sent to Curtin immediately after he made his request, an attorney for the federal government told the judge that state and federal agencies have already taken a close look at the complaints of neighbors who filed the lawsuit.

EPA officials last year investigated the complaints and established a “good dialogue” with the neighbors and their attorneys, said Mary K. Roach, an assistant U.S. attorney who sent the letter to Curtin. She added that, so far, government investigators have found no “conditions of concern” in the neighborhood.

Roach referred Curtin to EPA officials in Washington and DEC officials in Albany for further information. Curtin said he wants more detailed information about government oversight and tests at Love Canal.

Niagara Falls Mayor Paul A. Dyster declined to comment about Curtin’s request, except to say that it is his understanding that state and federal officials are looking into it. State and federal officials had no immediate comment when contacted by The News.

Officially, the judge’s role in the case ended in 1998, when the case was closed. But Curtin said he still follows developments and news reports on Love Canal because he wants to be sure that government agencies did the right thing when they left 21,800 tons of toxic chemicals on the site, covered with a plastic liner and a thick cap of clay.

In articles published Feb. 10 and 11, The News detailed the allegations by three neighborhood residents contained in a lawsuit seeking $113 million in damages in state court. Two families who live near the landfill and one family that formerly lived there contend that members of their households have suffered serious illnesses as a result of exposure to Love Canal chemicals.

Neighbors said they were especially concerned in January 2011, when toxic chemicals were found in a sanitary sewer below Colvin Boulevard, just outside the landfill, which is surrounded by a tall chain-link fence.

Curtin said that he is not casting judgment on whether the landfill is operating properly and safely but that the concerns voiced by some neighbors should prompt state and federal officials to conduct a thorough review.

The judge sent The News a copy of a brief letter he sent Feb. 15 to officials of the EPA, the DEC and the U.S. Justice Department, asking for a “detailed response and plan of action” on how to address the neighbors’ concerns.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Curtin heard thousands of hours of testimony about how and why toxic wastes were dumped in the neighborhood. Over 15 months, he presided over a liability case. That trial ended in February 1992.

Curtin issued a landmark ruling in 1994, finding that Hooker Chemical Co. — the corporate predecessor of Occidental Chemical Corp. — acted in a negligent manner when it dumped chemicals into the canal. But in the same ruling, Curtin refused a request from government lawyers to make Occidental liable for $250 million in punitive damages. The judge noted that little was known about the dangers of chemical waste at the time the dumping occurred.

His rulings led to Occidental paying more than $233 million to settle cases filed against the company by the state and federal governments. In the 1980s and 1990s, Curtin approved agreements involving the state, the federal government and Occidental on how the landfill would be secured and operated.

Today, Occidental is responsible for operating the landfill, and the company’s actions are monitored by state and federal officials.

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