NOW IT COMES OUT that some Hooker Chemical Company officials were aware of certain dangers at the firm's old Love Canal dumping ground years before the seepage, toxic wastes turned that Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood into a chemical disaster area. Why didn't somebody act? The answer may be found in one sentence in an internal memo released at a House hearing this week. "Hooker is still being plauged with problems . . . at the Love Canal area," one manager noted to another, "in site of their best efforts to shed themselves of any responsibility."
That was written in 1962. It sums up a corporate attitude, by no means unique to Hooker, that treated dumps and other poluution first and foremost as legal and public-relations "problems" to be resolved, if possible, by washing one's hands of the mess. One Hooker official told Rep. Bob Eckhardt's subcommittee Tuesday, for instnace, that in 1958 he had not warned the public about Love Canal-by then owned by the school board-because he didn't want to increase anyone's legal liability. Of course, letting the trouble fester has turned out to be far more costly for the company, the community and especially the innocent people who were hurt or forced to move out.
The question left by this sad experience is how companies can be moved to take a larger view of their responsibilities and clean up their old toxic dumps beofre people are actually hurt. New laws, public pressures and the example of Love Canal have already raised the potential costs of doing nothing and changed corporate perspectives somewhat. Even so, it is still likely that many clean-up efforts will bog down in arguments over how the blame and the costs-which will be large-should be apportioned among the companies and governments involved.
By now, companies such as Hooker ought to realize that times have change. Instead of waiting to be pushed, they should voluntarily disclose all they know about their past and present dumps, and shoulder responsibility for celaning up he problems-residues that they know or had reason to know about. That would put them in the stronger moral position from which to ask for public help if the problems exceed their resources. It would'nt be bad public relations, either. And it would make the whole difficult clean-up job much easier. Otherwise, with fields of rotting drums and seeping substances scattered across the land, the next few years, could become a lawyer's dream-and a nightmare for everyone else.