The region’s “chemical genies” of the early 20th century were heralded as reaching into the future to create a more abundant life for all. Instead, they deprived future generations of their health and well-being.

This month, CityLab visual storyteller Ariel Aberg-Riger dives into the promises of Niagara Falls, New York’s Chemical Age, and the destruction it has left behind.

If you scroll around the city of Niagara Falls from above,
there are blank spots.
Treeless, grassy,
oblong shapes.
They butt up against back lot strip mall roads and freeways
and small side streets.
They're eays to ignore. But up cose, they're bad impersonations of nature.
Some are marked. Some are not.
All are filled with toxic waste
In the late 1880s Niagara's banks were electric, with mills gulping down power from a hydraulic canal,
and spewing the leftovers back out.
Industry boomed,
population boomed,
and the city boomed - from the "electrical age" into the "chemical age."
The inventions kept coming
Niagara's "chemical genies" were heralded as reaching into the future
to create a "more abundant life for all."
What they were grabbing from the future wasn't inspiration, or foresight,
but acutal hunks of life.
Big, meaty chunks of future wealth and future health ripped out of the guts of time and padded onto their present.
Acid burns, basement fumes, rocks that exploded like firecrackers, oil slicks, phosphorous floating on the river.
Dead fish, dead cats, sick kids, strange symptoms.
By the late 1960s, a gutted future began to arrive.
The most infamous incident was Love Canal -  a small, working-class neighborhood whose homes and school were built (unbeknownst to the residents) directly on top of 3,700 tons of highly-toxic chemical waste.
When it became public in the late 1970s,
home values plummeted to zero, and 1,000 families were trapped even as the government told them it wasn't safe to stay.
Led by activist housewifes, citizens rose up
and demanded to be evacuated, inspiring the modern environmental justice movement, the creation of superfunds, and a national conversation about man-made disasters.
But even as regulations tightened and federal aid was given to help clean up the city, new waste kept pouring in. Thanks to Love Canal,
the superfund program grew with hundreds of toxic sites being cleaned up around the country.
But the cleaned up waste had to go somewhere, too.
By the late 1980s, Niagara was not only remediating its own toxic waste, but acting as a massive toxic garbage can for the entire Northeast.
Home to a branch of chemical waste management - the largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America - Niagara had one of the few landfills licensed to accept the toxic slop no one else would keep.
And so, its chemical legacy continued. When Love Canal was cleaned up, 2,600 tons of the toxic sludge was trucked just 15 minutes south to a small landfill.
Again, houses were built right next to it.
Again, homeowners weren't told about it. Again, residents are saying they're getting sick.
There are over 40 years of interviews with people in and around Niagara Falls.
People talking to reporters and neighbors and anyone who will listen about their stage 4 pancreatic cancer, their chronic immune disease, their epileptic kid with mysterious double rows of teeth, their neighbors' miscarriages.
and stillborn children, their suddently hairless, dying dog. But who can say how you or your mom or your neighbor or your kid got cancer anyhow? Maybe he's a smoker, maybe she likes tanning beds. You used to live somewhere else, right?
Nancy B. Peck, a recent appointee to the EPA's toxic chemical unit, bemoans that obsessing over "phantom risks"
can create "tremendous costs" for chemical companies. So the agency is taking on a "new direction on legacy chemicals" - less regulation, less digging into long-term health hazards. More like the old days.
But whatever good came out of those old days has long left Niagara Falls.
The population has plummeted to half what it was at its height in 1960. Almost 40 percent
of residents have income below the poverty line. According to the FBI, it's the most dangerous county in upstate New York.
Its contaminated legacy hangs, with one of the state's highest mortality rates, notably elevated cancer rates, specific cancers (like bladder) clustered around specific plants (like Goodyear)
With radioactive material sitting under bowling alleys, building supply stores, parking lots,
driveways, basements, graveyards, flower beds.
How far into the future does Niagara's toxic past reach? We're still waiting to find out.

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