born 25 June, 1951
A Brief Biography
In 1976, xx year old Lois Gibbs, a resident of Niagra Falls, New York State, read a cost-benefit analysis of of Love Canal. She has since credited her reading of that report as a key moment in her transition from housewife to environmental activist. As she came to realize that many of the health problems affecting her family, friends and neighbors were caused by the 20,000 tons of chemicals buried in her neighborhood, she became transformed into a powerful voice for treating “hazardous wastes” as something truly hazardous that can’t just be “thrown away” without a terrible price to be paid by people and the environment.
Her transition to activist took another important step when her son was hospitalized with pneimonia. His school was actually built on top of a waste dump where the Hooker Chemical Company (whose successor is Occidental Petroleum) had buried known toxics such as chloroform, dioxin, trichlorethane, tetrachlorethane, the banned pesticide Lindane and benzene. She felt angry with Occidental Petroleum and with the U.S. government for allowing them to cause such danger. But she also felt angry with herself for not speaking out sooner and trying to arouse her neighbors to join together and take action.
After her son was released from the hospital she finally got around to doing what she felt was the only thing she could do. She went door to door with a clipboard and a petition saying, “My name is Lois Gibbs. I¼m concerned about the 99th Street School. I want to know if you are concerned as well.” Her neighbors were concerned. They only lacked someone to help them get together and voice their concern in a way that bring about the necessary changes.
Ms. Gibbs and her neighbors formed The Love Canal Homeowners Association and called for closing the school and, indeed, the whole neighborhood. They were opposed not only by Occidental Petroleum, but also by government at all levels which argued that their health problems had nothing to do with the 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals buried beneath them. But truth, as so often happens, won in the end. In October 1980, President Jimmy Carter issued an order allowing the paid evacuation of the 900 families living at Love Canal and started the process that has become known as Superfund, to clean up other hazardous sites across the country.
[NOTE: There’s an excellent collection of documents relating to Love Canal at the University of Buffalo website.]
In the course of her struggle over Love Canal, Ms. Gibbs received encouragement from epople all across the country who were suffering from similar problems. In 1981, she responded by creating the Center For Health, Environment and Justice, (formerly Citizens Clearinghouse For Hazardous Wastes) an organization that has assisted thousands of other community groups in their own efforts to organize, gather information, and lobby for preventative or corrective action.
Ms. Gibbs continues her fight for a cleaner, safer America by her role as Executive Director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. She has been awarded an honorary Doctorate by the State University of New York at Cortland, New York, the 1990 Goldman Environmental Prize, the 1998 Heinz Award, and the 1999 John Gardner Leadership Award from Independent Sector.