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Lost in the Stacks: Paradise Falls

It was like something out of a horror movie, but instead of decomposed bodies rising from the grave, rusted drums filled with toxic chemicals were rising from the ground. Residents of the LaSalle neighborhood in Niagara Falls, New York, noted other strange things including black sludge in their basements, oily cesspools in their backyards and strange chemical odors wafting through their homes. It wasn’t just sludge and smells that bothered the LaSalle neighborhood, they were also affected by skin rashes and eye irritations, miscarriages and birth defects. Many residents didn’t realize their tidy starter homes, a playground and an elementary school were built directly on a chemical landfill, the notorious Love Canal. 

In Paradise Falls, author Keith O’Brien revisits the environmental catastrophe that made headlines and brought awareness to America’s growing problem of chemical waste. Although city and health officials had long known about the 20,000 tons of chemicals buried at Love Canal, it wasn’t until the spring of 1978 that residents began to call for action from the local, state and federal governments. Women like Lois Gibbs, a young mother with two children, and Luella Kenny, who lost her little boy to kidney disease, mobilized the neighborhood, and vociferously demanded to be relocated away from their now toxic homes. 

Community action

Joining the fight were scientists like Beverly Paigen who put her job on the line so she could aid the families in improving their “useless housewife data.” Ambitious reporter Michael Brown of the Niagara Gazette called out Hooker Chemical for dumping the toxic waste. Scrappy Sister Joan Malone, school librarian by day, environmental activist by night also joined the fight. The community action work was messy, with warring factions, competing solutions and many missteps (including a misguided hostage taking of federal officials by some of the mothers), yet they prevailed. Packed with human interest stories and paced like a thriller (this would make a great limited TV series like Chernobyl!), Paradise Falls is sure to be the definitive book on Love Canal. 

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