The Love Canal: A Narrative Analysis
The story of the environmental disaster at the Love Canal lends itself to many different interpretations. The setting was in the late ‘70s in Upstate New York, at a time when environmental issues had particular salience. The people of Niagara Falls told a passionate tale about their safety and their families put into harm’s way. Regulators and local officials told a tale that pointed fingers and shifted blame. The media, both locally and nationally ran rampant with the story, creating controversy and salience nationwide. The federal government would tell a very different narrative – about how they were able to come in and rescue people from environmental disaster and local incompetence. However, the most compelling story was the one told by the media and the people of Niagara Falls, because without this perspective, the issue would not have gotten the attention and high level of government response that it did from other players.
The narrative told by Lois Gibbs is the most representative of the sentiments of the local people of Niagara Falls. Gibbs was the leader of the Love Canal Homeowners Association (LCHA), a civilian group having tremendous influence on the love canal case. The LCHA came forward with stories of rashes, disease, and other sickness they believed to come from the toxic waste seeping from the Love Canal. When the city, the Hooker company, and others were hesitant to respond, they conducted their own studies to try and prove that the Canal was causing real health damage to families (Layzer 2016). The pathos of Gibb’s platform was tangible. They felt like the citizen voice wasn’t being heard and that they were in immediate peril. In a dramatic climax they took matters into their own hands. Gibbs and the LCHA held hostage two EPA officials as they demanded action to deal with the waste problem. The narrative that the locals told had a particular meaning – extreme danger and a refusal to respond on the part of a government they thought should be protecting them (Layzer 2016).
The story of Gibbs and others caught the attention of Michael Brown, a reporter that helped take the Love Canal problem into the national spotlight. His narrative told a tale of “an eloquent plea for help” from the public protagonist and an antagonist city that was stonewalling the needs of the citizens (Layzer 2016). Brown helped to conduct an informal health survey of local citizens, and found a lot of health problems in the population. The media as a whole saw the passionate pleas of citizens and catapulted the issue onto a national scale. They were hungry to find information and the truth, which resulted in the leak of an incomplete EPA report of negative health effects. The meaning of the media’s narrative was one of a lack of response, and a lost voice they were able to give an audience.
Local government and the bureaucracy found issue with much of the way the media presented the Love Canal story. They saw incomplete and inconclusive science, and blamed each other for the escalation and lack of control over the issue. Throughout the story, the local government and other agencies from the county health department to the EPA are overwhelmed by the passion and attention that the issue created. In a defensive response, they point fingers – at each other, at Hooker chemical, at the media, and at the scientific community (Layzer 2016). These groups narrative theme is one of misunderstanding and misinformation compounding the problem.
The federal government has a different perspective. For president Jimmy Carter and the federal agencies he commanded, the salience of this issue became a major problem. As a result, the federal government stepped in to evacuate the Love Canal and acted like a savior, trumping the power of the city, county, and state to seize control of the situation, and pass legislation afterward to create future protections (Layzer 2016). The takeaway for the government’s narrative is one of federalism, and the importance of national control of environmental issues.
Taking into account all these different perspectives and narratives, one thing becomes clear. Were it not for the passion and strength of the original narrative of the local people, none of the other responses would be the same. The government, state, agencies, and the media were all compelled to respond by the power of this original narrative. Were it not for the bold words and sometimes brash actions of the immediate stakeholders, the issues would not have created the same space around the issue for other stakeholders to write their own narratives.
Layzer, Judith A. 2016. “The Environmental Case.” CQ Press. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications.