LAST DECEMBER, Lois Gibbs disrupted a meeting of the president's Cancer Panel and bluntly asked its newly appointed chairman, billionaire industrialist Armand Hammer, to resign. A few years ago the fragile-looking mother of two would, by her own account, have been too scared to speak at a PTA meeting. But that was before Love Canal.
Gibbs was incensed by the appointment of Hammer, head of Occidental Petroleum, whose subsidiary, Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp., had in the 1940s and '50s dumped thousands of tons of toxic wastes in Love Canal, in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Lois Gibbs moved to Love Canal decades later, and the situation there aroused her ire, an ire so steadfast and unyielding that it sustained her through a two-year fight to evacuate permanently all the residents of Love Canal at government expense, a fight that led all the way to the White House and a te te-a -te te with Jimmy Carter.
On Wednesday, the story of Lois Gibbs and the battle that transformed her -- she is now an environmental activist living in North Arlington -- will be dramatized in a two-hour CBS movie. Gibbs is portrayed by Marsha Mason, the actress who catapulted to fame after her 1973 marriage to playwright Neil Simon. It will be Mason's first TV movie, and it's a project she feels strongly about. "I wanted this subject matter brought to the attention of a large audience," Mason says.
Gibbs, too, was after the vast TV audience, which is the reason she turned down an offer by friends of Jane Fonda to make a feature film instead. "The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] says there are 30,000 to 50,000 of these toxic waste dumps across the country," she says. "If one person had given me one-third of what I know now when I started, we could have won a year earlier . . . I want to be able to go into the field and help people who are facing the same problems we did at Love Canal." For Hooker Chemical, the TV production is one more incident of negative publicity, although the company's name has been removed from the script after discussions between Hooker attorneys and CBS. Hooker raised the issue of the Fairness Doctrine at these discussions. "Our company's position is that we have acted responsibly in all aspects of the Love Canal situation," said spokesman Michael Reichgut. Hooker executives have not seen the script, although they made several requests to do so "in an attempt to assist as far as accuracy was concerned," said Reichgut.
Today Hooker Chemical, the city of Niagara Falls, the Niagara Falls Board of Education and Niagara County are being sued by both residents of Love Canal and the U.S. government for approximately $14 billion. In Congress, Love Canal became the most visible symbol of the need to create the Superfund, the $1.6 billion program passed in the last days of the Carter administration to force the chemical industry to begin to clean up its wastes. Lois Gibbs, a 30-year-old high school graduate and president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association, won herharrowing battle. In the process, this American housewife, who, according to her congressman, John LaFalce (D-N.Y.), "couldn't even put a sentence together when she started," has transformed herself into an articulate spokesperson on toxic wastes, a canny community leader, a masterful media manipulator and star.
In the last 3 1/2 years there have been other changes as well. Gibbs has dropped from a chunky 140 pounds to a svelte 115, divorced her husband and moved to Washington. She has become friendly with Sidney Poitier and Jane Fonda. Gibbs says Barry Commoner's Citizens Party approached her to run for governor of New York, but she declined, explaining, "I'm a single-issue candidate."
These days Lois Gibbs will produce a nine-page "vitae" that lists her TV appearances, "international, national, local"; every radio interview she's given; all 11 newspaper features and 21 magazine articles about her; the nine awards (the Buffalo chapter of NOW, Girl Scouts of America); and every meeting with politicians and bureaucrats from Jimmy Carter right down to the Niagara Falls Board of Education. A note explains, "Haven't dealt with anyone in the current administration." Under the heading of "current newspaper and magazine interviews" she has typed, "Too numerous to outline."
The CBS movie is not nearly so gripping as Lois Gibbs' real-life story. CBS was careful to concentrate on Gibbs with her family and her neighbors. There is enough drama left over in Lois Gibbs' story for a continuing series.
What grabbed me about playing Lois Gibbs is that she's not any different from a lot of women in the U.S. She is a high school graduate with a minimal education who got married and thought the American Dream was to make ends meet like everybody else. Then she became galvanized through a primal fear her children were dying of some horrible thing. It forced her, by fire, to grow up, to deal with people and to handle herself in a psychologically complex set of circumstances, with the media, with the bureaucracy, with men. Her commitment has been extraordinary but the cost is enormous -- the death of a whole way of life she was used to. -- MARSHA MASON
LOIS GIBBS got married to get out of the house, in Grand Island, N.Y., a small town located between Buffalo and Niagara Falls. The third of six children, she adored her mother but didn't care much for her father, a bricklayer. "I decided to marry someone I could control. I really just wanted to have kids."
When she was 20 and had already broken three engagements, Lois married Harry Gibbs, a chemical worker at the Goodyear plant. They saved for the down payment on a neat blue bungalow in Niagara Falls, just a few blocks away from the 99th Street elementary school.
The school's playground was built on top of the old Love Canal, now filled in with 21,000 tons of chemical wastes from nearby Hooker Chemical. In 1953 Hooker had sold the 16-acre site to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1, at the board's request, with a deed disclaiming responsibility for any injuries that might result from the waste of 82 chemicals buried there. Hooker says it warned officials at the time that the area might be hazardous. (Love Canal was found to contain several carcinogens as well as dioxin, a chemical found in Agent Orange that is one of the deadliest chemicals known to science.
After her son Michael was born in 1972, Gibbs worked briefly as a nurse's aide. When daughter Missy followed in 1975, she babysat 12 other children in her home for extra money. She and Harry paid their taxes on time and voted in every election. In her book, she says of herself at the time, "I thought if you had a complaint, you went to the right person in government and if there were a way to solve the problem or alleviate it, that they would be glad to do it. I was to learn differently."
Whatever spare money was left from Harry's $10,000-a-year income went to pay Michael's medical bills. From birth he had suffered everything from asthma to kidney infections to later seizures that were diagnosed as epilepsy. The first inkling that Michael's problems might be environment-related came in June 1978. Gibbs read a series of articles in the Niagara Falls Gazette describing possible dangers to residents in her area from toxic chemicals leaking from the drums buried in Love Canal, and leaching into the soil, as well as into underground streams that ran below the canal.
The City of Niagara Falls and the State of New York had been aware of the problem since the early '70s and the state had begun tests to measure the leakage in late 1977. But Gibbs became really alarmed after talking with her brother-in-law, Wayne Hadley, then a biology professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He told her even minute amounts of some of the chemicals there "could effect the central nervous system and kill brain cells."
Lois Gibbs requested that her son be transferred. When school officials refused, she circulated a petition to close the 99th Street school. It was the first time she had ever asserted herself publicly, and she was so scared that, after getting no response at the first door she knocked on, she went home.
But not for long. Within weeks Lois Gibbs and Wayne Hadley, who proved to be an important early mentor, were meeting at 8 on Friday mornings in her kitchen with two local state legislators to plan strategy. Early on they made the decision to pressure the government rather than Hooker Chemical because Hooker had the resources to tie them up in court for years. By then, Lois Gibbs had visited nearly 100 homes, and what people told her frightened her even more.
"The entire community seemed to be sick," she wrote. In her book, she also said the man who lived down the street from her was dying of lung cancer; the man across the street had just been operated on, also for lung cancer. The woman next door suffered severe migraines; her daughter had a bleeding kidney disease. Miscarriages, nervous breakdowns, deformed children and mental retardation seemed tragically frequent, she wrote. During the next year, when they were keeping score, their statistics showed that of the 22 pregnancies among Love Canal residents in 1979, only four resulted in normal births. (A Hooker spokesman, citing a New York state blue ribbon panel, says that there has been no proof of damage to health from exposure to chemicals and that Gibbs' pregnancy statistics were not scientifically gathered.)
While Gibbs was going door to door, the New York State Health Department was taking blood samples from families and testing the air in their homes. Even so, many people refused to sign Gibbs' petition for fear of losing their jobs. Says Gibbs, "I would take their kid and set him up on their lap or next to them and say, 'You look that kid in the eye and tell that kid your job is more important than he is.' "Sometimes," she says now, "you have to force people to face reality."
She and her neighbors got a big dose of reality the following August, when the state Department of Health called a meeting in Albany, 300 miles away, to announce a state of emergency at Love Canal. The 99th Street school would be closed, and Health Commissioner Robert Whalen recommended the evacuation of pregnant women and all families with children under the age of 2 in the first two "rings" (streets) of homes bordering the site.
Most of the residents learned of this development on the news, but Lois Gibbs had driven six hours with her husband and a neighbor to be there. When they arrived home, they rushed to a neighborhood meeting.
"What, for God's sake, will the dump do to the rest of us?" Gibbs shouted in the meeting at men she would have been too shy to shake hands with a few weeks earlier. The state's only answer was to announce a remedial construction program for the canal that Gibbs felt did not take into account leakage into the underground streams.
That night Gibbs faced a microphone for the first time in her life, to tell what little she knew to an angry crowd gathered on someone's front lawn. Two meetings later she was elected president of the Love Canal Homeowners Association.
In order to play Lois I'd take a certain situation in which I feel totally intimidated by someone, someone who I feel is more intelligent, articulate or verbal than I am, and use that sense of frustration. She was catapulted into what she had to do. I know what that's like, when you've taken on a certain amount and you don't feel you have the strength to get through it. It's the sense of aloneness you feel at those times. -- MARSHA MASON
MARSHA MASON found it difficult to portray Lois Gibbs. She groped to get a fix on the inarticulate blue-collar housewife protecting her children as compared with the trim, media-savvy personality Lois Gibbs has become. "In the beginning it was very difficult to understand her," Mason says. "I kept looking for the hook, the handle, of who she used to be, because the person I met is 200 percent different."
Another obstacle was the difference in life styles. Mason regards Gibbs as "a representative symbol of working American women today," and estimated the Gibbses lived on $30,000 a year. In fact, it was $10,000. Mason, with her Beverly Hills life style, could grasp little of that reality.
Nine years ago Marsha Mason married the recently widowed and enormously successful playwright Neil Simon (see "Chapter Two"). She was instantly thrown into a life that was as different for her (see "Chapter Two" again), a New York stage actress (see "The Goodbye Girl"), as plunging into politics was for Lois Gibbs. The marriage coincided with Simon's move to Hollywood, and today Mason is one of Hollywood's leading actresses.
"When I married Neil nine years ago it was such a surprise to both of us," says Mason. "I lead an incredibly complex life. I'm a grandmother now, and I wonder what the next 10 years will bring. I don't feel guilty about being rich and famous, I feel a terrible sense of responsibility."
ONCE LOIS Gibbs took on the presidency of the Homeowners Association, her mother took care of her children and her husband started to do laundry. Reporters, having found an official spokesman for the residents, routinely began calling from 5:30 a.m. until well after midnight.
A few days after the state-of-emergency announcement, Gov. Hugh Carey, who was running for reelection, visited the site. Bowing to residents' demands, he said the state would purchase the homes of all 236 families in the first two rings who wished to leave and pick up their tab for relocation. Lois Gibbs and the other 600 or so families in the surrounding area would have to stay put unless they could prove medically that the chemicals were affecting them. To this day that proof does not exist -- mostly, says Gibbs, because of bureaucratic buck-passing, delaying and bungling. The results of a comprehensive EPA study on the level of contamination present in the Love Canal area are now almost a year overdue.
"On the federal level Love Canal was handled with the grossest malfeasance," says Rep. LaFalce, who battled hard for his district. "The overall government response was atrocious. For the most part, it was characterized by ineptness, inefficiency and inertia."
"I disagree," says Dr. David Axelrod, the commissioner for public health for the State of New York. "I think we handled it with the utmost professionalism."
At this point, the residents set their goals as tax abatement, medical evaluation and relocation. Gibbs says that in their fight they got little or no help from the government of economically depressed Niagara Falls or the local medical community, even "one doctor who had eight children with same urinary disease living on the same block." The Environmental Protection Agency said it couldn't come in without being invited by the state. The state said it had invited the EPA. When the EPA finally did come in, Gibbs said, it behaved insensitively, by using such terms as "fetal wastage" and "toxic torts" when speaking to women who had miscarried or given birth to a stillborn child. The New York State Department of Health, she says, lost medical records and misplaced hundreds of blood samples. Ultimately, says Rep. LaFalce, the federal government tried to steer clear of what he calls "a superior opportunity to learn about the effects of toxic wastes on humans."
Frustrated with the health department, Lois Gibbs and a local cancer research specialist, Dr. Beverly Paigen, tracked the health of residents living in the "wet" areas (along the underground streams) and found abnormally high incidences of miscarriages, birth defects, and neurological disease. But their study was dismissed by the state as "useless housewife data." "Why don't you go home and tend your garden?" one official asked Gibbs.
She decided to take her case to the media. She contacted "60 Minutes." She appeared on the "Phil Donahue Show." Whenever she met with public officials, she let the media know about it. "Any time you can put a politician in front of all his constituents, whether in the press, TV or radio," Gibbs says, ". . . he generally has to respond in a favorable way. Politicians look to tomorrow and count where the votes are coming from."
In the beginning she was awkward and inarticulate on camera, but in this area, too, she was a quick study. She began to wear carnations in her long dark hair during media appearances as a trademark.
By February 1979, the New York State Health Department found "a small but significant increase in the risk of miscarriages and birth defects" among Love Canal residents. It evacuated pregnant women and children under 2 from a six-block "wet area" surrounding Love Canal. The following September, after having gone to court to establish medical criteria for further evacuation, the Gibbses joined hundreds of other Love Canal families living in local motels. That's when her marriage really began to unravel.
Despite the dangers, Harry Gibbs preferred living at home. There was no privacy at the motel -- the whole family was in a single room -- and Lois was in constant demand.
Harry Gibbs had taken abuse at work for his wife's activities, which some coworkers felt endangered their livelihood. His son had been beaten up several times while waiting for the bus to take him to his new school. Lois Gibbs was thus aware of the factions ranged against her. "A lot of times I would think things up that got a lot of coverage, like taking coffins to Albany, just to give people something to do," Lois Gibbs says, "to take the heat off me."
In early spring of 1980, Lois's daughter, Missy, had a brief attack of idiopathic thrombocytopenia, a rare blood disease, which affected the manufacture of platelets. At first the doctors thought it might be leukemia. "One day little bruises appeared on her arms and legs -- the next day they were as big as saucers," Lois Gibbs says. At the hospital, the child screamed as doctors put a needle in her hip for a bone marrow test.
"Every time she screamed, blood vessels would burst all over her face," says Gibbs. "It was like watching firecrackers going off on this child's face."
Feeling sick, Gibbs rushed to the ladies room. As always, TV cameras were waiting for her when she left the hospital.
Not long after, Missy's symptoms disappeared..
It was not until late spring of 1980 that the results of an EPA study were leaked, saying that 11 of 36 Love Canal residents studied had chromosome damage. (Five separate review panels later could not agree whether chromosome damage was present, and the New York state panel said that the EPA study was so badly handled that it "damaged the credibility of science.") But when the residents asked officials what this meant to them, they could not get satisfactory answers.
An angry mob gathered outside the Love Canal Homeowners Association office, smashing windows and burning the initials EPA with gasoline on a lawn across the street. Lois Gibbs and another woman held two EPA officials hostage for five hours "for their own protection" while Gibbs tried to reach the White House. She finally got assurances that President Carter would speak to Rep. LaFalce that night.
As she calmed the crowd, Lois Gibbs gave the federal government until the following Wednesday to act. She demanded full-scale evacuation or, she said, "what happened today will look like a 'Sesame Street' picnic." On Wednesday President Carter declared a federal emergency at Love Canal and ordered the federal government and New York State to begin jointly the relocation of 710 families from the Love Canal area and to provide federal matching funds (up to $15 million) to pay for their homes.
Four months later, Jimmy Carter flew to Niagara Falls in the midst of his reelection campaign and signed the legislation. Lois Gibbs joined him on the stage at the Niagara Falls Convention Center to continue her lobbying for extra compensation. She wore a white flower in her hair.
The American people don't know the power they have," says Lois Gibbs.
MARSHA Mason, who is about to start a new Neil Simon movie, "Max Dugan Returns," with Jason Robards and Donald Sutherland, says she is very proud to have played Lois Gibbs. Mason says she donates to the Gray Panthers, the ERA and handgun control. Tackling the role of Lois Gibbs for her first network television role was also an opportunity to pull herself out of a depression.
"I went through this period when I was very sad, depressed, frustrated and angry. I feel much more liberated now." Her depression, she says, had to do with "being 39 now." (But in an interview nine years ago her age was given as 34.)
"Some days when I woke up in the morning and looked in the mirror I thought to myself, 'Boy, somebody better tell me I look sexy today or else I'll cry,' " Mason said. "I started out as an actress in the theater, and I could look great from the stage and also terrible. Now I'm in a business with a camera, and I have to pay attention to what my eyes do and what my neck looks like at a certain angle, and make sure I hire a cameraman who protects me. An actress on stage doesn't have to deal with that -- it gives a lot of angst, that physical part of the business."
This Friday, Lois Gibbs will mark the publication of her book, "Love Canal: My Story," with a party at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. Marsha Mason, though invited, won't be there. She left a week ago for India, to visit the Swami Muktananda. She goes regularly to see her beloved "baba."
Recently, Lois Gibbs, wearing jeans and no makeup, sat on the living room floor of her rented house in North Arlington, stuffing 14,000 envelopes with announcements of the formation of her Environmental Clearinghouse. She was hoping the "Phil Donahue Show" would call; they had talked to her about going on the show with Joan Baez and Sonia Johnson, the feminist who was forced to leave the Mormon church, on a program devoted to activist women accused of being publicity seekers.
The question of media manipulation is not a new one to Lois Gibbs. "I'm sure all the politicians thought she was a publicity monger," says Marie Rice, a Buffalo television reporter who covered Gibbs for more than two years. "But Love Canal was the biggest story to hit western New York since Attica. It was the first time ever that families were moved from an area that was chemically contaminated. Lois Gibbs was there day after day and she never gave up. She has to command respect for that."
"You don't fight this subject scientifically, you fight it emotionally," said one Senate staffer who dealt with Gibbs. "Lois understood this in a very sophisticated way. She knew how to play one politician off against another. My boss couldn't look her in the eye because he couldn't say no to her. She looked so vulnerable, as if she could cry, but she took a reasoned approach. She never ranted and raved." "Lois is a very attractive women," says Rep. LaFalce, "and attractive people can be much more persuasive, all things considered, than unattractive people."
"I always thought it was an advantage being a woman," Gibbs says. "I used it when I needed it."
Does it bother her that the Reagan administration seems intent on slowing the work of the Superfund, whose final version was already watered down considerably? "Of course it does," says Gibbs, "but I want someone else to be out front on that. We need to develop more leaders."
Gibbs is planning to keep up the fight with her own organization. "Eighty percent of the toxic waste dumps in this country would still be built today," she says. "Either you get involved or you watch your kids die. I did what I did because I knew I was right."
Gibbs says she is relieved that when the family moved away from Love Canal her children's symptoms disappeared. "Michael's urinary surgery has been canceled and he's not even bothered by asthma anymore." She has been advised, however, to seek "genetic counseling" for her daughter Missy when she's older. As a result of her exposure to toxic chemicals since birth, says Gibbs, there is no guarantee that her daughter will be able to have normal children. That, too, is part of the terrible legacy of Love Canal.