At one time Lois Gibbs was so shy, placid and domestic her mother called her “Susie Homemaker.” As an adult, Lois took pride in the neat three-bedroom Niagara Falls, N.Y. ranch house she shared with her husband, Harry, a $150-a-week chemical plant worker, and their two children. She baked her own bread and made a point of having dinner ready by 5 p.m. Then four years ago she burst into the news as a kind of Northeastern Norma Rae. She became the riled-up bricklayer’s daughter, leading her neighbors in the Love Canal uproar that forced the government to deal with toxic waste across the country. Her fight, Lois says proudly, “was a historic event. It made the world aware of the hazards of chemical dumping.”
Gibbs, now a 30-year-old divorcee living in Arlington, Va., is the subject this week of a two-hour CBS docudrama, Lois Gibbs and the Love Canal, starring Marsha Mason. The film and Lois’ just published autobiography, Love Canal, My Story (State University of New York Press, $12.95), chronicle her campaign to force Albany and Washington to act.
During the ’40s and early ’50s more than 20,000 tons of chemicals were buried in Love Canal, an abandoned half-mile-long hydroelectric channel. In 1953 the company that owned the area deeded the 16-acre rectangular plot to the city of Niagara Falls for a school, which was built directly over the canal. Soon after, developers sold off adjacent house lots to low-income families. By the early ’70s, as the soil over the canal eroded, foul-smelling pools of chemicals began surfacing in backyards after rainstorms, shrubbery died, and black sludge oozed from basement walls.
The Gibbses, who lived three blocks from the school, remained unconcerned until December 1977, when their son, Michael, began to have epileptic seizures just four months after entering kindergarten. Later he also developed liver and urinary problems. About that time Lois read a series of articles in the Niagara Gazette linking the toxic waste dump with an inordinate number of miscarriages and strange illnesses in the neighborhood. “All Michael’s diseases were listed in one story,” Lois remembers. “This was the answer I’d been looking for.” She sought to have her son transferred to another school, but was turned down with the explanation, “If the school is unsafe for your child, it’s unsafe for all of them.”
Smarting at the decision, she set out with a four-line petition to close the school. “With my knees shaking, I went to the first house,” Lois recalls. “When no one answered, I quit and went home.” But that night Michael came down with another fever and Lois decided, “I had no choice.”
In August 1978 she presented her request, signed by 161 residents, at a state health department hearing in Albany. She was surprised that officials agreed to close the school and evacuate pregnant women and children under 2 in the two rows of houses bordering the canal. Still worried about the safety of other residents, she returned home to find her neighbors equally upset. They formed the Love Canal Homeowners’ Association, electing Lois president.
Pressured by the group, the Carter Administration declared the community a federal disaster area, and a multimillion-dollar clean-up was begun. In May 1980 an Environmental Protection Agency study—later disputed by a state-appointed panel of scientists—fueled further controversy. The study indicated that Love Canal families had abnormally high chromosome damage, and that their children probably had broken chromosomes, increasing the risk of birth defects and cancer. A near riot ensued, and angry residents held two EPA officials hostage for five hours in the Homeowners’ headquarters. “I went out on the porch,” says Lois, “and announced that if the government didn’t give us permanent relocation, our protest was going to look like a Sesame Street picnic compared to what we would do next. It worked.” The federal government agreed to pay for relocation for all homeowners in a 70-acre area.
While 146 Love Canal families still cling to their homes, some 800 have moved away. They sold their houses either to state or federally funded agencies. The Gibbses received $30,000 for their bungalow, and Lois headed for Virginia in March 1981. The month before, she and Harry divorced (he has since remarried). The breakup was caused partly by Lois’ celebrity. “He didn’t like doing the laundry while I was in Washington or being interviewed on TV,” Lois says. “I outgrew him.”
Today she lives in a $250-a-month rented house with Michael, now 9, and daughter Melissa, 6. Michael has not had an epileptic seizure since leaving Love Canal, and Melissa has recovered from a rare blood disorder, called ITP, which she contracted there. Yet some doctors believe that both children have higher-than-normal chances of developing cancer later in their lives. Says Lois: “We feel like human time bombs.”
Lois might seem endangered by another kind of overexposure. Her nine-page resume” lists 45 speaking engagements since 1979, and more than 50 TV and radio appearances. Gibbs won’t say what she got from CBS as a consultant’s fee and for the rights to her story, but she’s invested $2,000 of the proceeds in founding the Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes. Operating out of her living room, she advises groups near other toxic dumps (there are as many as 50,000 in the U.S.) how to mount successful protests.
Might she ever want to resume the private existence that she says was wrecked by Love Canal? “I’ll never go back,” she vows. “My life was aimless before. Now I have a goal, and it’s my turn to help people.”