Paradise Falls: The True Story of an Environmental Catastrophe

Pantheon Apr. 2022. 480p. ISBN 9780593318430. $30. HIST
O’Brien’s (Fly Girls) meticulously researched and gripping history of the massive environmental disaster at Love Canal draws readers into the unrest, anxiety, and bewilderment of everyday people discovering their beloved neighborhood is poisoned and deadly. In 1977, residents of a modest blue-collar neighborhood near Niagara Falls, NY, discovered that they were living atop a canal filled with toxic waste (dumped by Hooker Chemical Company 30 years earlier), which was now leaching to the surface and making them sick. O’Brien spotlights two of the residents whose determination and endurance proved extraordinary—Lois Gibbs, a young mother and housewife–turned–ardent environmental activist and organizer; and Luella Kenny, spurred into activism by the grief of losing her young son, who she believed was sickened by Love Canal. They endured years of corporate muscle flexing and of state and federal governmental delays, denials and stonewalling, until President Carter finally issued an emergency order aiding Love Canal’s neighbors to relocate; in 1980, Congress established the Superfund Act. O’Brien describes the Love Canal crisis as citizen activism meeting politics and power and eventually prevailing, thanks to heroes like the beleaguered but undeterred scientist and civil servant Beverly Paigen, whose investigation of Hooker Chemical was steadily opposed by the New York State health commissioner.
VERDICT This Love Canal story exposes the nation’s utter unpreparedness to respond to that public health crisis and is very timely during the COVID pandemic. This authoritative book deserves a wide audience and should provoke reflection on just how much we have progressed in the 45 years since the Love Canal disaster.
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