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Ruckelshaus Denies Request to Buy Love Canal Homes

[EPA press release - August 2, 1984]

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William D. Ruckelshaus today denied a request, for the time being, to purchase rental and non-residential property in the Love Canal area in Niagara Falls, N.Y.

In a letter sent today to Rep. John J. LaFalce (D-N.Y.), Ruckelshaus emphasized that the federal Superfund law will continue to be used primarily to protect human health and the environment rather than for purchasing property which has suffered diminished value due to its proximity to abandoned hazardous waste sites.

The EPA Administrator denied a request by LaFalce that EPA purchase a number of rental homes, commercial properties, community facilities and vacant lots located within the Emergency Declaration Area (EDA) surrounding the Love Canal Superfund site in Niagara Falls, New York. He promised to reconsider the decision at a later date if on-going habitation studies at Love Canal indicate that it would be unsafe to repopulate the area in the future. Those studies will be completed over the next several years.

Today's decision affects only non-owner occupied rental property and commercial and community facilities. Specifically, properties involved include 25 rental homes, four commercial properties, two churches, a fire house, and 60 vacant lots. People currently living within the area are doing so voluntarily.

A buyout of all owner-occupied homes within the EDA was authorized as part of a 1980 agreement with the state to address the contamination problem at Love Canal. All other residents of the EDA were offered relocation assistance, and to date have declined that offer. Meanwhile, a series of long-term cleanup actions are continuing to address the sources of contamination in the area.


Fact Sheet - Love Canal Decision

History

  • The Love Canal site is located in the southeast corner of the city of Niagara Falls, New York, and is approximately one-quarter mile north of the Niagara River.

  • Between 1942 and 1952, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corporation (now Occidental Chemical Corporation) disposed of over 21,000 tons of various chemicals into Love Canal. The solid and liquid wastes deposited into the canal include acids, chlorides, mercaptans, phenols, toluenes, pesticides, chlorobenzenes and sulfides.

  • A Federal-State Agreement signed on October 1, 1980, provided for a $7.5 million loan and a $7.5 million grant, for the purpose of providing permanent relocation for the residents of Love Canal located within the Emergency Declaration Area (EDA). The agreement was funded by a special appropriation known as the Javits-Moynihan amendment. One requirement of the amendment, with respect to acquisition of residences using federal funds, prevents the purchase of non-owner occupied homes or businesses.

Today's Decision

Today's decision affects 25 non-owner occupied houses still occupied voluntarily by renters, 4 commercial properties, 2 churches, 1 fire house and 60 vacant lots. The original buyout has resulted in the purchase of homes from all owners living in the EDA who chose to participate in the program. All other residents of the EDA have been offered relocation assistance under an offer that still stands.

EPA reiterated its existing policy that Superfund resources should be used primarily to protect human health and the environment from threats posed by uncontrolled hazardous waste sites. Purchasing property which has suffered diminished value due to the proximity of a site will divert funds which could be used to address public health and environmental problems at other sites. The agency promised to reconsider in the event that habitability studies currently underway indicate it would be unsafe to repopulate the area in the future.

Beyond the overriding policy consideration concerning a decision to buy property solely because of diminished value due to proximity to a hazardous waste site, there are several other facets of the Love Canal situation that make further buyouts at this time undesirable:

  • Those renters who voluntarily continue to live in the EDA may be displaced if landlords sell out to the government.

  • Because newly eligible sellers would receive relocation assistance under the Uniform Relocation Assistance Act, which was not available to the sellers under the original buyout agreement, they stand to receive a much better deal than those who were governed by the first agreement.

  • Property just outside the EDA may suffer even further declines in value in the event of a federal buyout of non-owner occupied property within the EDA.


United States Environmental Protection Agency
Washington, D.C. 20460
August 2, 1984
The Administrator

Honorable John J. LaFalce
House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

Dear John:

We last met on May 10 to discuss the difficulties facing property owners within the Love Canal Emergency Declaration Area (EDA). I agreed that we should carefully examine the possibility of using EPA's authority under the original Federal/State agreement and to maintain property already purchased.

Since our meeting, my staff and I have examined these issues exhaustively. We have attempted to develop a complete inventory of the residential and commercial property and community facilities remaining in the EDA, as well as to define how many people currently live in the EDA and under what type of arrangement. We have evaluated our possible alternatives under CERCLA in light of our other activities continuing at Love Canal, including efforts to clean up contamination in the outer ring of the EDA and the consideration of which areas of the EDA can be rehabitated. And, we have put the problems at Love Canal into the context of problems we face in implementing CERCLA at sites across the country.

You know the long and unfortunate history of the Love Canal area as well as anyone, and I will not attempt to recount it. The problems you brought to our attention are principally the result of the original Federal/State buyout agreement, which only made owner-occupied homes in the EDA eligible for purchase. Everyone hoped, in hindsight perhaps unrealistically, that fast decisions on the appropriate extent of cleanup would lead to final decisions on which areas of the EDA could be rehabitated. The involved Federal and State agencies are still grappling with the question of rehabitation, although resolution of the question finally appears to be within sight.

Throughout this process we have attempted to address the concerns for the health of area residents. The original buyout has resulted in the purchase of homes from all owners living in the EDA who have chosen to participate in the program. All other residents of the EDA have been offered relocation assistance under an offer that still stands. A series of remedial actions have addressed and are continuing to address the sources of contamination in the area.

The persons currently facing financial hardship are those whose property is not eligible for purchase, who may have watched the value of their rental property, businesses and facilities drop in the face of the uncertain future of the Canal area. Theirs is a different sort of dilemma, particularly since the governmental efforts designed to protect the health of the area residents have contributed to the current inequities. Indeed, those affected are not limited to the political boundaries of the EDA. We have heard from many living near the EDA whose lives have been and continue to be disrupted by these events.

It is largely because of these types of considerations that in the past we have confined decisions to buy property under CERCLA to instances in which human health is in danger, and where permanent relocation, as opposed to temporary relocation or other measures, is the most cost-effective way to protect people. The unfortunate economic effects suffered by those living in or near the EDA is a difficulty familiar to thousands living near hazardous waste sites. At nearly every Superfund site we hear credible stories of depressed property values, owners' inability to sell property, and the uncertainty and anxiety of property owners and residents.

Although these problems are real and pressing, I believe that we must use our limited resources first to address the health and safety of our citizens and our environment. We recently examined this issue in analyzing a Senate proposal to amend CERCLA, which would require permanent relocation of residents when a release of hazardous wastes depresses property values to the point that selling property is impracticable. We fast realized that this approach could seriously compromise our ability to protect health and the environment at other sites across the country. We believe we should use our relatively limited funds to clean up the known sites and to relocate permanently only when it is necessary to protect human health. Such does not appear to be the case with respect to the remaining individuals who reside within the EDA.

Beyond these overriding policy considerations, there are some other facets of the Love Canal situation that militate against further buyouts at this time. Our examination of the effects of an extended buyout has brought to light certain unavoidable effects were we to purchase the remaining property in the EDA -- shifting, but perpetuating, inequitable effects. First, those renters who voluntarily continue to live in the EDA may be disserved; their status would be uncertain once landlords sell out to the government. Next, any CERCLA buyout, which would proceed under the terms of the Uniform Relocation Assistance Act (URAA), would include significant amounts of relocation assistance not made available to sellers under the original Federal/State agreement, which was not subject to the URAA. The newly eligible sellers, in short, wold get a much better deal than those who have already sold their homes and who continue to be eligible to sell them. Finally, those who live just outside the EDA might see their property values decline even further; but the alternative of opening the boundaries of the EDA to all those whose economic interests have suffered from proximity to Love Canal could create a never-ending ripple away from the EDA.

These considerations, of course, apply to any decision to maintain homes in the EDA purchased under the Federal/State agreement. These are obvious difficulties with using CERCLA monies when the homes were not purchased under that authority. In addition, title to these homes rests with the State, which apparently intends to resell them to help finance repayment of the Federal loan that contributed to the buyout. In contrast, it is difficult to justify using the limited resources of CERCLA to maintain homes pending the outcome of the habitability determination.

The ultimate answer for the property owners at Love Canal will hopefully not be deferred for long. We are in the last stages of evaluating the appropriate remedy to address the contamination in the sewers and creeks of Love Canal, to guard against future exposure to hazardous substances. We are continuing with our plans to cap the innermost area of the EDA over the abandoned canal itself. Finally and most importantly, we are nearing completion of the long process to determine those areas of the EDA that are now or after remedial action will be safe for long-term habitation. Beginning in the first half of next year, the Federal and State Governments will make habitability determinations beginning with the outermost areas of the EDA and working inward. If those determinations lead to the repopulation of portions of the EDA, property owners in those areas can at last expect a reversal in the decline of their property values. If, however, part or all of the EDA is determined to be unsafe for long-term habitation, I will reconsider whether it is then appropriate to use CERCLA to purchase all property within those areas. We will move deliberately and without further delay to complete our efforts at Love Canal, so that once and for all we can address in an even-handed manner the concerns of all those affected.

Sincerely,

William D. Ruckelshaus