The news spread like wildfire across the country: hundreds of families in a small neighborhood in Niagara Falls were being slowly poisoned by toxic chemicals in their own backyards. The Love Canal disaster of the 1970s highlighted the contestation between citizens who felt their well-being was at risk and experts who had to look at the issue through an objective lens. Public officials and corporations like Hooker Chemical and Plastics, the organization responsible for dumping the toxic waste in the canal, were battling against emotion-fueled charges from citizen groups who had the weapon of fear on their side. The media played an essential role in perpetuating certain narratives to get this issue on the national agenda, often emphasizing the danger that the impacted families were in. I will conduct a narrative analysis of this case, looking at the frames utilized by corporations, citizens, and experts. In the issue of Love Canal, a conflict between science and morality, emotional narratives perpetuated by citizens and the media ultimately decided the fate of the case.
Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation was the group responsible for dumping the toxic chemicals in the canal. Therefore, when it came time to assign blame, the attention immediately turned to them: How would they clean up their mess that was endangering the lives of citizens? To avoid blame, they pushed a narrative that acknowledged the problems that Love Canal faced, but disputed their role as the cause. “Hooker representatives emphasized that the canal had been the best available technology at the time. The company, they said, was merely acting as a good corporate citizen, not admitting guilt, when it contributed money toward the city-sponsored Calspan study and subsequently volunteered to share cleanup costs” (Layzer 2016, 72). By depicting themselves as “good samaritans,” Hooker attempted to shift the narrative away from the cause of pollution to instead focusing on the ways it could be fixed. Though they were persistent in their efforts, Hooker and the government officials struggled to gain momentum in a battle against the resilient Love Canal residents.
The residents of the Love Canal neighborhood had the strongest weapon to fuel their narrative: fear. Their rhetoric emphasized the danger the families were facing, citing health risks associated with exposure to the toxins. Ailments included ear infections, nervous disorders, headaches, and even disproportionate incidences of cancer and miscarriages (Layzer 2016, 70). The Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA) was founded, piloted by a resident named Lois Gibbs whose son had developed epilepsy soon after attending the elementary school built on top of the canal site. Their goal was to emphasize the causal relationship between Hooker’s chemical dumping and the residents’ ailments, which would lead to the evacuation and compensation of the families in the area (Layzer 2016, 71). The media pushed this narrative with force; headlines declared that a health crisis was threatening children in Niagara Falls, emphasizing the worst ailments reported. This narrative effectively appealed to the general public’s emotions and put this issue on the national agenda, as it was depicted as something horrific that was happening to everyday Americans in their own backyards. Viewers empathized with the Love Canal families and called for action from the government, despite the fluctuation of scientific evidence being announced.
The tension between residents and officials who were assessing the risks of the area were palpable. In opposition to the residents’ emotional narrative, experts presented data in objective terms that didn’t appeal to the citizens’ values. While officials emphasized the necessity of conducting preliminary studies to assess the situation, residents felt they were wasting resources instead of looking for solutions. But what the scientific experts were looking for was proof of causation; it was clear that the residents of the neighborhood had experienced health ailments, but were they the direct result of the chemicals in the canal? Furthermore, was the occurrence of these ailments disproportionate to other areas, or to New York as a whole? This narrative was centered around the vitality of knowledge and sought to find the cause-and-effect relationship between Hooker’s chemicals and the medical conditions suffered by the residents. While officials stressed that they didn’t want to use resources to fix a problem that didn’t necessarily exist, the highly emotional residents were appalled at what they viewed as a lack of empathy for their suffering.
Years after the case ended, experts concluded that the ailments Love Canal residents suffered were no more common than other areas in Niagara Falls, or in New York as a whole. This outcome proves the experts’ original point about the necessity for careful evaluation; the residents were evacuated and compensated, but in hindsight perhaps this was not necessary. However, the outcome still fell in favor of the residents, proving that their emotional narrative fueled their success in the case. The media’s role in emphasizing this narrative and appealing to viewers’ family values is what put this case on the national agenda, and allowed the residents to gain so much traction. The Love Canal case is a perfect example of how narratives and framing can determine the outcome of an issue, despite the objective data presented.
On my honor I have neither given nor received unauthorized information regarding this work, I have followed and will continue to observe all regulations regarding it, and I am unaware of any violation of the Honor Code by others.
Layzer, Judith A. 2016. “Love Canal.” In The Environmental Case: Translating Values into Policy, Los Angeles: Sage. essay, 63–91.