Q: Were you divorced because your husband didn't like you being such a celebrity?
A: That's what he says publicly. But I think it was a combination of problems. Love Canal is a community where the men are macho, providers, protectors-of-the-family type. Almost obsolete I suppose. The house symbolized his masculinity and his ability to provide and protect, in his own mind. Once we moved away from the house, he felt less of a man, and that created a lot of problems. For the same reason he refused to move from that house. He would not move into the apartment with the children and I. He was worried that vandals would come and burn the house. All these crazy ideas that weren't untrue and could have very well happened.
That, as well as my activism, created a problem. We had little to talk about. He was a chemical operator. He made it, they dumped it, and I screamed about it. A circle conversation. I obviously outgrew him. It wasn't his fault. It was a number of events. He got a lot of ribbing from his peers. People at work would say "What's your wife trying to do, close down our plants? What's your wife doing in Washington? Who's she sleeping with?"
Q: The Love Canal incident must of been quite a nightmare.
A: It was also very exciting. As much as it was craziness, as much as it was devastating to me personally, and my family, it was something I never did before. It's like when you get your first job. It's horrible. You're under stress and strain. But at the same time, it's exciting.
Q: You were quite a different person before. You weren't involved in social organizations or PTA. Then you become the neighborhood's leader. What caused you to take action like you did?
A: I was a housewife, a mother of two children, which I still am. I was real shy, introverted, kept to myself. I had very few friends. My life revolved around my family. I also come from a big family of six sisters and brothers who all have wives and children. They served the purpose as friends -- a Sunday night card party.
It was a radical change. I would never have thought I would be doing what I'm doing now. It would have scared the s - - - out of me if you would have told me years ago that I would be sitting here talking to a guy from The Washington Post. It transcended me. And what did it was anger. My son was getting sicker and sicker. I could see him deteriorating. The motherly instinct, the anger -- "Somebody's gotta do something." You're physically and financially trapped in the situation. We couldn't just pick up and leave, which I think is real hard for people to understand and comprehend. All I was doing was walking around. Maybe somebody could do something. I had no vision that that somebody would be lucky me.
It was really on the advice of my brother- in-law. I went to him. And he just scared the s - - - out of me. He said, "If your kid is exposed to benzene, every day his brain cells die." I said "Don't tell me that. Tell me what I have to do." He said "Why don't you circulate a petition?" He had ideas of what to do and where to go. How to develop me as an individual. I didn't recognize that he was doing that at that point in time. If my brother-in- law hadn't been there at the onset, would I be where I'm at today? Would Love Canal had taken its turns the way it did? I had somebody there to steer me.
So I wrote up this little petition that said that I wanted to close 99th Street School. It took me about two weeks to get the courage to knock on the first door. It was just awful. I threw up for three days before I knocked on that door. And when I got there, I was literally physically sick. Thinking back on it now, I don't know how I ever got up the nerve. It went back to Michael, and Michael being sick. I really felt, and still feel, that if I hadn't done anything, Michael would have died. I just didn't think he would make it through 6 years of age.
Q: Did you grow up in the Love Canal area?
A: I grew up there. I always thought that Buffalo was a big city. The travel time between Buffalo and Niagara Falls is about 25 minutes at best. I always thought that was so far to drive. And now that I've lived here (in Arlington), I can't believe I was hesitant to drive from here to here because there were three cars in front of me.
Q: You were lead to believe that the school was causing your son to be ill?
A: Melissa was not sick at this time, and Michael was, and Michael had attended school for a year. I associated his illness with the school building. I thought that it ended there. Once they closed the school down, everything would be fine. I don't know why I thought that. It doesn't make any sense.
I started knocking on doors and these people were talking about miscarriages, birth defects, a 12 year old with a hysterectomy due to cancer, children with brain damage or learning disabilities, adults who were disfigured. All of a sudden, it's like it's not the school. The woman next door's daughter had kidney problems. She had a miscarriage. That woman had a problem. Her son had epilepsy. Michael had epilepsy. The one behind me had epilepsy.
One of the biggest problems I had was that people didn't want the school closed. "Let's clean up the dump, but let's not close down the school. We moved here with the intent of having our children within walking distance of the school. We moved here because the open field" -- which was the dump, we later found out -- "was going to be a park." With 20,000 tons of chemicals.
The interesting thing was I still had this faith that when I went to Albany, for sure the state was going to do something. I never even thought about the politics. I never thought that Gov. Carey was running for re-election. It took almost a year of a fight before I actually realized the reason we were being so effective was because we were making these politicians look bad. They were responding to that by doing something to shut us off, to keep us quiet. That took an awful long time to really crunch that blind faith, even though I was being dirted on by these people, shoved aside, called names, treated fairly badly. That was my first education into politics.
Q: When you went to Albany, were you frustrated that people there weren't listening? That the decisions (to evacuate pregnant women and children under 21/2) had already been made?
A: My girlfriend who was sitting next to me just started crying, "What's going to happen to my kids? What's going to happen to my 2 1/2-year old?" I just lost it. It was the first time I had ever said f - - - in my life. I didn't even know that word before then. I said, "You f - - -ing bastards, how can you do this?" I just totally lost it. It didn't make sense and they weren't going to budge. And they kept on telling us to sit down and shut up.
Q: What remains in Love Canal?
A: When you take the the highway that goes around the scenic falls, you see a housing development, nice semicircle, made for families of large numbers -- five people or more -- all boarded up, vacated. Empty parking lots. Empty basketball courts that were never empty. Swings no longer there. Just these empty roads, overgrown vegatation. Some of the homes and apartments have been burnt by arsonists. There is a vacant area of clay with a 10-foot fence around it, all abandoned. There's no life there. Nothing there.
It's just real sad. Windows are broken. Glass in the street. The wires that hang across the my street, 101st Street, there's a doll hanging from it. Somebody hung a noose around its neck, and hung it from the wire. You see graffiti on the house. Those residents who were irate and boisterous left things on their houses like curse words. Other people's houses there are nicer things, like "Bye Debbie, we're gonna miss you." It's a dead community. It looks so eerie. You drive down the street and there's like pieces of people's lives. There's pieces of tricycle. We had a lot of children in our community riding Big Wheels up and down the sidewalk, and that's all gone. The people are all gone. It gives me the creeps.
There are several families still living there, most without children. In the northern end, there's a family of a state representative who moved in, who's head executor of the revitilization agency that handles the resale of the homes. You'll see his children riding up a vacant street -- it's really sick -- along the creek that's full of dioxin which is all fenced in. Ghosttown isn't dramatic enough to explain it. That was my home, my family. It's very strange. Maybe a quarter of a mile, here's a major shopping mall. You go up from a clearly dead area and then there's a shopping mall with Christmas lights.
Q: How many people were moved in the first evacuation?
A: Two hundred and thirty nine people had the option of leaving. Two hundred and thirty seven left. Two stayed. One of the women was so nuts. Central nervous system problem was one of her major ones. She had two teen-age daughters that she let lay out in the front yard. The fence is here and the workers are here, cleaning up (dioxin) in their spacesuits. And these girls are sitting there in their bikinis, flirting with the workers. Mom is just standing there, watching, planting her garden. She's still planting her garden and eating the vegetation.
It's funny. Reporters go to talk to them. If I was a journalist, I would like to talk to those folks. She comes out with a broomstick, chases these people up and down the street yelling "Get out of here! I'm tired of you people! Get out of here!" We used to sit at our office, which was right next door, and we used to watch these guys come over. We'd say, "You don't want to go over there. We're warning you." Then they'd go over there and you see them come running by, with her behind them with the broom yelling, "Get out of here! Get out of here!"
One woman came into our office one day, very upset. Sixty Minutes came down, with Harry Reasoner, and they happened to be filming right in front of her house. After they left, she began yelling at us that we were blowing this whole thing out of proportion. She said "We don't have any problems around here! I'm so tired of all you people! My husband has cancer, but that's not caused by Love Canal. I had this breast removed, but that's not caused by Love Canal. We had this and we had that but they weren't caused by Love Canal. They happened naturally."
We said we needed her in our health survey.
Q: You've done some work on asbestos in public schools in Virginia?
A: After reading a story about asbestos in schools, I wanted to find out if it was in my kid's school. I don't feel comfortable with the answer I've gotten. But at the same time, I don't want to create havoc at my son's school. He's been through enough. As we walked toward the school to see when it was built, he kept on crying "Mom, please don't close the school." At Love Canal, I had closed three elementary schools, all of which my son had attended. This is like his fifth school in his fifth year. I try to stay very close to toxics because you get burned out if you spread out too much -- like Ralph Nader.
Nobody in the Washington area is concerned because people feel they're not going to be here very long. They invest in a $125,000 house. They're here for four years or whatever. Then they're out. They're not going to make a stink and devalue their home. They'll want to resell it in four years. I find an awful lot of that.
Q: How do people you deal with at the EPA perceive you?
A: I have heard in the backroom that I am called the "Love Canal witch." That was the kindest thing they have said. I was in West Virginia a couple of weeks and there was an EPA representative. After we had a public meeting, he came over to me and said "I really couldn't figure out what you were going to say, Lois. I woke up in the middle of the night trying to figure out how you were going to pull this one off." His impression was that I was going to get all the people crazy, and he was going to have to deal with it. But ultimately, he said that the presentation was not irrational. I think elected officials are twice as scared because they know that it doesn't matter what I'm doing publicly. Behind the scenes I'm helping these folks strategize against them -- to get them to move.
Q: Are you happy with the way things have turned out in your life after moving out of Love Canal and into Arlington? Are you happy with the changes that you went through in the process? How do you feel about being a celebrity?
A: I like what it's done to me. I definitely do. I have a purpose in life. I have a goal. That I like. The celebrity part I'm not as thrilled with. Even though I'm real public and even though I've done a lot of things, and I've certainly come a long way from that first door, I'm still a very private person. So it has its pros and cons. But I really like it. Folks call me up when I've been out to their particular site. They call me up six months, eight months later, and said that they won. They won, we won. Like a baseball team, when you're in the series. As long as you're winning, you're doing real good. And you're real happy with what you're doing.
Q: How did you make the shift to a big town like Washington from a little, slow town like Love Canal?
A: It was funny. It was like when I went to knock on that first door. Packing up everything I had and moving to Washington where I knew nobody, except for a couple of professional aquaintances. Drive up in the U-Haul and here I am. My mother reminded me a zillion times before I left town, "What are you doing? You're crazy. You packed up your kids, you packed up your house, you left everybody behind." A couple of times, I actually seriously thought about turning around and going back, and saying, "You're right, mom, I'm making a big mistake."
At Love Canal, the idea of a Clearinghouse had come to being. I knew there were two places I could do it -- New York City or Washington. New York wasn't real conducive for family live. So I decided to come to Washington. The other reason I moved was because I don't think I could ever live in upstate New York just because of who I am. Here in Washington, I'm a nobody. But in New York, I go into a store to pick up a few groceries and 10 people would approach me, saying how much they loved me, or how much they hated me, or they had a cousin who had a dump. I couldn't even buy a loaf of bread. I had no personal life at all.
But it worked out fine. I don't think I've ever been as happy as I am now. I feel more like a person. I'm doing something I like. I do it well. I'm still learning an awful lot. It's stimulating and interesting. It gives me the feeling of accomplishment.
But I'm not sure what the long-term effects are.