FALLS CHURCH, Va. — The woman who helped free an entire community from a toxic dump, literally rewriting environmental laws in the process, was so shy at the start of the struggle she tried to hide behind a tree when neighbors called on her.
Lois Gibbs took to the stage that day 35 years ago, in the seemingly idyllic community of Love Canal, N.Y., and began to find her voice. Transforming herself from homemaker to hell-raiser, she helped convince then-President Jimmy Carter to come to town in 1980 and remove 900 families from a 21,000-ton toxic dump. Earlier that year, Gibbs and her neighbors held two Environmental Protection Agency officials captive in a ploy to get the president’s attention. It worked.
Long before Erin Brockovich became a movie, Gibbs helped secure an environmental victory of greater heft. Love Canal’s war against the toxins under its feet prompted the federal government to create the Superfund cleanup program and earned Gibbs the Goldman Environmental Prize.
Today she is still in the fight as executive director of a nonprofit squired in a third-floor corner office in a nondescript building in Fairfax County, Va., a few miles from Washington, D.C. A tiny gray sign hangs outside the door, betraying no sense of the history inside.
Aged photos cover the walls and floors alongside stacks of environmental reports. One giant picture shows Gibbs aside President Carter, moments after he announced the relocation pact. Another photo shows a 3-year-old boy wearing a T-shirt announcing: “Love Canal Guinea Pig. Used by New York State and federal government.” Another picture — published byToday’s Suburban Woman magazine in 1979, a year into the struggle — shows Gibbs clutching her daughter in front of a boarded-up building.
These aren’t museum pieces, but reminders of a journey. Across the country, other communities, sickened by pollution but bereft of know-how, ring.
“I see myself in the people who call,” Gibbs, 61, says today. “These women call up and say ‘Nobody understands me.’ I can relate to them. I see myself in exactly the same place. If I don’t have that connection to the people, I would just walk away. ”
From dream town to toxic dump
Gibbs began finding that connection in 1978, as she went door to door in Love Canal after learning the community sat atop a landfill of toxins. “Who would build a school on top of a dump? Who would build a playground on top of a dump? And why didn’t anyone tell me?” she asked.
The discovery ignited a woman who, growing up in Grand Island, N.Y., 15 minutes upstate from Buffalo, busied herself sewing draperies and aspiring to be a housewife. In Love Canal, her vision took root. Her husband worked at the Goodyear plant and they had two children, Michael and Melissa. This neighborhood, just miles from Niagara Falls and her childhood home, was filled with the noisy chorus of kids, two churches and mom and pop shops. Gibbs walked her children to the 99th Street Elementary School and to the playground next door each day.
Michael was born just before the family settled into a three-bedroom home on 101st Street in 1972. Healthy at birth, Michael started getting sick not long after they moved in, and each ailment became more serious. His asthma led to pneumonia, which was followed by a urinary tract disorder, and then a seizure disorder. Finally, a doctor told Lois her son had an immune system problem. Melissa, conceived in Love Canal and born three years after Michael, developed a rare blood disease. Gibbs searched for clues, but found none; she didn’t even allow soda in the house, but her children could not shake their sicknesses.
Then, one day in 1978, the Niagara Falls Gazette published a story about toxic dump sites cluttering the region. Love Canal was one, and the news screamed from the page: 21,000 tons of toxic waste had been buried next to the school property, underneath the playground. The now-defunct Hooker Chemical Co. had sold the site to the school board 25 years earlier, for $1. “Oh, my God!” Gibbs thought, reading the Gazette. “Every single day I took my children to the playground to play.”
Pressing to move her son to another school, Gibbs won an audience with the school board superintendent. The school chief settled into an oversized leather chair behind a broad, shiny wood desk. He seated Gibbs in a school desk normally used by kids. Sunken in her seat, she slid two doctors’ notes across the desk saying her son’s sickness could be tied to the dump, she said.
The superintendent glanced at the notes, then slid them back. “‘We’re not going to do that because of one hysterical housewife with a sick kid,’ ” he said, as Gibbs recalled it. “ ‘Well, if your kid is so sick, why don’t you go home and take care of him? Why are you running around to City Hall and the school board?’ ”
Tears streamed down Gibbs’ face. “All of a sudden, I became the bad guy.”
At home, her Irish-Catholic temper began to burn. Raised on Love Road in Grand Island, one of six children of a stay-at-home mom and union dad, Gibbs was taught to vote at election time and fly the American flag. Now, as she raised two sick children in a town smothered in waste, the government had turned its back. “After I got sad, I got mad,” she says, recalling the conversation that helped propel her on a lifetime of activism. “Don’t ever tell me I’m a bad mother.”
When neighbors answered her knock, Gibbs opened up about her children’s illnesses. In living room after living room in Love Canal, neighbors shared that they also had sick children. “It wasn’t until I went door to door that they started saying, ‘My son has asthma too, or my daughter has epilepsy,’ ” Gibbs said. “Women talked to me about birth defects.”
Residents began paying closer attention to evidence before their eyes. One couple grew squash so huge it could win prizes at a community fair; now they worried toxins bulked it up. Kids dubbed a local creek “Beverly Hillbillies” — after the show about a family that struck riches in black gold — because they could stick a piece of wood in the water and it would come up slimy black. Rocks on the ground were so explosive they would pop like firecrackers if kids threw them against a wall.
One afternoon, a child stuffed rocks in his pocket and began running home when, suddenly, the rocks caught fire and burned him severely, Gibbs said. With each story, the community began to absorb the larger picture.
“She was like a hurricane and we just kept going,” said Luella Kenny, a fellow Love Canal resident-turned activist. “She was a housewife, and there’s nothing wrong with being a housewife, and she did not have all of this shall we say Wall Street and Washington know how the politicians had and the Wall Street investors had.”
Instead, Kenny said, Gibbs possessed a “hidden talent she wasn’t even aware of. But when push came to shove and your children are being threatened, I think you find that energy that you are going to protect them, for heaven’s sake.”
Her son, Jon Allen Kenny, the only of her three children born at Love Canal, died at age 7 in 1978 from kidney failure.
Another day, Kenny was showing health officials her backyard when a bird flew into the creek, sipped some water, and plopped down dead, she said.
Among the toxins brewing in the underground cesspool: A mix of halogenated organics, pesticides, chlororbenzenes and dioxin, according to EPA records. The community linked the chemical waste to failing health, producing charts showing high rates of miscarriages, crib deaths, birth defects, kidney and urinary failings — and nervous breakdowns.
As the evidence mounted, Gibbs pressed for answers, thinking back to the preaching of her father, a war veteran and bricklayer for Bethlehem Steel. “‘The system will work, if you play by the rules.’ ”
In the spotlight
As she made the rounds, Gibbs kept searching for someone to emerge as the face behind the neighborhood’s mission. “Where’s the leader?” she wondered. “I’m a housewife of sick kids. My job is not to become a community leader.”
On Aug.2, 1978, the spotlight found her. That day, after gathering hundreds of signatures on a petition demanding that the state close the 99th Street School, Gibbs and a neighbor piled into Gibbs’ green Cutlass Supreme convertible and drove five hours to the capital in Albany.
As they arrived, petitions in hand, light bulbs went off and commotion filled the air. “Are you Lois Gibbs? Are you Lois Gibbs?” reporters asked.
Serendipitously, New York health officials were holding a press conference, declaring a state of emergency in Love Canal and ordering the 99th Street School closed. The state health commissioner was recommending relocation for pregnant women or parents with children under two living on the two streets nearest the landfill. New York directed Niagara County to clean the site. The state said it would help residents find temporary housing — but not pay for it — and families could return after the cleanup.
Back in Love Canal, the state’s announcement ignited fiery protests. Why move just the closest streets? What about parents with sick three-year-olds? “It was a kind of running joke,” Gibbs recalls. “If you get pregnant, you get out. It’s pretty pathetic.”
When she returned from Albany that night, neighbors were burning mortgages in a barrel. As Gibbs stepped from her Cutlass, homeowners called her to the stage. She tried to hide behind a tree. Spotting her brother-in-law, she sought advice. His counsel: Call a meeting. Gibbs gathered her strength, took to the stage and — making the first public speaking appearance of her life — announced that everyone would meet in the following days.
At that meeting, the community elected Lois Gibbs president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association. Suddenly, she felt the burden of 900 families on her back. It was one thing to fight for your own children, but another to know your decisions impacted thousands. “Here’s this huge burden,” she said.
Her solution: To make the homeowners association the most democratic organization on earth, with 50 street representatives, each responsible for fanning out to different corners of the community. Church leaders took on some roles, activists others. No decision was made unless the majority agreed. This democracy was her blanket — and helped shield her when, a year into the struggle in 1979, some neighbors, frustrated at the slow pace of reform, pressed for a new leader.
In a meeting room packed with 500 residents, one group shouted to replace Gibbs. Another said she should stay. The session threatened to veer into hysteria. Sitting at the head of the room, Gibbs thought: What would my mother do? She imagined two children fighting and pictured a mother taking away the toy at the heart of the struggle.
She took the microphone. “My first question is, how many people like blue?” she asked. Bewildered looks filled the hall. Slowly, a few hands reached upward.
“How many people like red?” she asked. Another cluster raised theirs.
“Look,” Gibbs said. “Everybody has a different opinion.”
Her tactic worked. The room settled into calm. Turning to her blanket once more, Gibbs cited the association bylaws, which laid out the process the homeowners needed to follow in order to elect a new leader. It never happened.
Instead, the residents pulled closer. “I just thank God that we had Lois at the time,” said Kenny, her former neighbor. “You just had never heard of people being able to take over and be able to win and to beat the government.”
A new face comes to town
As the fight evolved, a new face arrived in October 1978: The state tapped Stephen Lester, a Harvard-trained environmental scientist, to be a technical adviser to the residents of Love Canal.
Lester heard stories about the shy housewife who had never spoken publicly before. But now, sitting before him was someone entirely different. His first impression of Gibbs: “Hotheaded.”
“She was a fiery fighter,” Lester recalls. “She was very emotional, very opinionated, very active in the community. One of the very first things she told me was that the state of New York was lying to the public and they were hiding information and I couldn’t trust them. So I needed to listen to her and to the community.
“When I met the state Health Department, I was told Lois was very emotional and she lies to the public and makes things up. These two sides clearly don’t like each other. I decided I wouldn’t take sides.”
A month into his assignment, Lester said, “I quickly realized that Lois was telling more of the truth than the state people were.”
Evidence of harm continued to shake the community.
In 1980, the EPA issued a study showing that the chemicals in question could trigger genetic damage for future generations. In other words: That the community’s children could be sickened, and their grandchildren too. Yet the federal government still resisted pleas to move everyone out.
“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Gibbs said. Her neighbors “just went crazy.” Housewives in pink hair rollers rocked cars in the streets one Saturday, she said. Neighbors poured gasoline on one lawn, spelling E-P-A, and lit it afire. “That’s when you knew you no longer had control,” Gibbs recalls. “It was scary.”
As the lawn smoldered, two EPA officials were holed up in a hotel nearby. Gibbs invited them to come to an abandoned home, where residents were meeting, to talk about their study.
When the officials stepped in, a communal brainstorm built up: Let’s hold them hostage. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder, the residents blockaded the EPA spokesman and scientist from leaving.
The FBI swooped into Love Canal and shut off outside access to the phones. The scene put the spotlight just where the community wanted it — upon President Carter, deep in a rough re-election campaign. The nation would see what the sitting president would do.
Six hours later, residents let the EPA men go, but they gave the president four days — until noon Wednesday — to act. Or else. Gibbs and her neighbors never knew what “or else” was. They prayed their spur-of-the moment deadline would work.
Convinced the FBI would lock them up for taking federal officials hostage, some residents went to bed fully clothed. “I didn’t want to go to jail in my jammies,” Gibbs said.
The feds never stormed their homes. But two days later, the White House agreed to temporarily relocate all Love Canal families.
“This is not an ordinary situation,” an EPA official announced May 21, 1980. “This case presents special circumstances warranting this extraordinary action. The studies completed to date are sufficiently suggestive of a threat to public health … ”
On Oct. 1, 1980, Carter came to town to cement a permanent relocation. As Carter spoke, Gibbs stood in the audience. There was a problem. Interest rates had skyrocketed, and homeowners worried they’d be underwater in their new homes. They pressed Gibbs to get the ear of a president flanked by Secret Service agents.
For a moment, Gibbs sat quietly. Then she made her move. Secret Service agents stopped her. “I’m not going to go away, and if you take me away I am going to scream,” she recounted. “How’s that going to look, Lois Gibbs taken out screaming because they wouldn’t let her talk to the president?”
The officials let Gibbs to the stage, where she turned to the president and whispered: “Can we talk about low interest loans?”
He turned to the activist, and said yes, they could talk about loans. He asked if she had heard of the Superfund program. That moment, captured in a giant black and white picture, is a keepsake Gibbs keeps on display today, leaning against the wall at the CHEJ.
In all, more than 900 families were moved out, 350 homes were demolished and the school torn down. The fight helped spur the Superfund program, in which government dollars clean up toxic sites across the U.S.
Carter lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan. But in his final State of the Union address in 1981, he cited Love Canal’s resonance. “The regulations establish comprehensive controls for hazardous waste and, together with vigorous enforcement, will help to ensure that Love Canal will not be repeated,” he said.
In 2004, Love Canal was officially removed from the Superfund list, though some residents still raise environmental concerns. "Love Canal taught us that we needed a mechanism to address abandoned hazardous waste sites, especially those that posed a threat to people's health," Jane M. Kenny, EPA's Regional Administrator, said at the time. "Decades later, Love Canal has become a symbol of our success under Superfund.”
A new mission
Gibbs formed the Center for Health, Environment & Justice in 1981, and in the years since has traveled to every state except Alaska. The group’s goal is to help communities face off against industry and government — and to flee pollution, just as people in Love Canal had. The organization has produced a 43-page guide — Relocation: Getting Organized and Getting Out (Go Go) — that offers how-to advice for communities new to the environmental battleground.
Victories don’t come easily in a landscape where industry flexes political muscle, governments move slowly and communities have little more than their wits.
In every stop, she asks: “What can you do to make them uncomfortable? I try to convince them that the more people you have the more power you have. At Love Canal we won because we turned out 550 people at every meeting.”
The Center’s science director is Stephen Lester, the same expert hired by New York to work in Love Canal. He is also Gibbs’ second husband. Married in 1984, they have two children along with Gibbs’ two children from her previous marriage.
“Lois is most comfortable in the communities,” said Lester. “She’s got eight balls in the air, and she’s going to a community on a weekend when she doesn’t have to. Her response has always been, ‘If I don’t go to these communities, then I can’t do this other stuff that keeps this organization going.’ ”
Recently, she traveled to Texas — to visit a row of refineries in Corpus Christi and discuss children’s school health concerns in Austin. Later she was in Annapolis fighting hydraulic fracturing.
In February 2012, Gibbs traveled to Wilmington, N.C., at the request of activists fighting to block construction of a cement plant proposed in the coastal city.
Gibbs visited for 24 hours, making three presentations. Her main message to organizers: To empower the citizens most likely to be harmed by the cement plant. Until then, the prime organizers were pushing the fight largely by themselves. But now, here was the mother of Superfund saying the larger power came from the people.
“She just changed the way we viewed our citizens,” said Sarah Gilliam, coordinator of the Stop Titan Action Network, who had invited Gibbs to Wilmington. “It was really just a giant light bulb going off for me.”
When she speaks to communities, Gibbs paces in front of the podium, speaking in common sense prose. “This is a big company. They’ve got lots of money and you don’t,” she told the residents in Wilmington.
Gilliam had studied Love Canal’s story while an environmental policy student in the Master’s program at UNC-Wilmington. Now, with the community’s struggle hitting dead-ends, she turned from the history books to the real thing.
“Before she came down here I had her up on this fake pedestal,” Gilliam said. “And when I met her she was just so real. … We’ve got this new mantra where we’re channeling Lois.”
A version of this article originally appeared on the Center for Public Integrity site.