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All History of US Environmental Policy

Week 9: Love Canal

In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon offshore drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico, following an explosion, released approximately 4.9 million barrels of oil into the ocean, decimating local ecosystems. The sensational media coverage elevated it to one of the key news stories of the era. The neighborhood of Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, New York, discovered toxic chemical waste in the late 1970s, leading to a public health crisis and the eventual evacuation of over 800 families. Both events garnered long-lasting media attention and prompted various legislative and regulatory actions.

The public policy response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill involved the establishment of a multi-billion-dollar fund by BP, Transocean, and Halliburton to compensate victims, the temporary suspension of offshore drilling. Additionally, the spill led to the strengthening of environmental regulations, such as 2012 updates to the Drilling Safety Rule and a commission studying the disaster. Trump later rolled back much of this “regulatory burden,” granting continued access for oil companies. I was in elementary school when Deepwater Horizon happened, and I remember seeing photos of both the oil rig and the grassroots galvanization and cleanup efforts. Yet even as I write this, we are awaiting the approval of the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska to decimate the largest pristine ecosystem left in the United States. While we may have strengthened regulations at the time, no amount of money can undo this pernicious ecosystem destruction or prevent it 100%. Our cancerous dependency on ever-cheaper ever-more oil requires corners to be cut and disasters to occur. The cultural sentiment toward oil drilling remains bolstered by the industry’s heavy employment in the most affected areas. According to Yale’s 2021 climate polling, public opinion toward expanding the offshore U.S. drilling for oil and natural gas is evenly split 49% to 49%.

In contrast, the Love Canal crisis led to the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as the Superfund Act, in 1980. This legislation established a federal program to clean up hazardous waste sites and hold responsible parties accountable for the costs of cleanup. The Love Canal Homeowners Association, a grassroots organization, was instrumental in bringing attention to the issue and advocating for government intervention. National media attention on the affected families humanized them, drawing broad emotional support from families elsewhere that could imagine this crisis happening in their own community. The focus on human families, versus ocean ecosystems many Americans don’t emotionally connect with, likely played a part. CERCLA was a strong legislative response with a lasting impact, and Americans since feel (appropriately) they deserve to live in places that are not toxic waste dumps. While more focused on climate, the same polling shows 70% of Americans feel corporations should do more to address environmental damage.

The Love Canal crisis occurred nearly three decades earlier than Deepwater Horizon, at a time when environmental awareness and activism were emerging. The policy response to Love Canal helped lay the groundwork for future legislation and regulation, and set a tone that the U.S. would take serious action in response to these disasters. As the decades have gone by, our focus has weakened, and Deepwater Horizon got added to the list of oil disasters and little has materially changed a decade later, as the drilling must continue.