Life along 101st Street was filled with long silences this fall. No Halloween pumpkins were on the front porches, no troops of youngsters charged off the afternoon school bus.The leaves were blowing into untouched piles along the lines of neat little square lawns.
"It's dead," said Lois Gibbs, as she picked up the mail from the box here last week. "It's finished. Everyone's pulling out. You'd be guilty of child abuse if you came back here to live."
The only persistent sound in the air is the growl of a bulldozer a block away where it methodically piles tons of dark clay over what once was the neighborhood playground on the Love Canal.
The neighborhood was built after Hooker Chemical Corp. closed and covered the Love Canel dump site more than 20 years ago, leaving thousands of drums of toxic chemicals leaking into the subsoil. Officials have found those chemicals hundreds of feet from the dump site, both underground and oozing to the surface.
Last year, after reports of dangerous chemicals oozing from the site and causing health problems, New York State bought 239 houses closest to the canal and moved those families out. Now, Gibbs and hundreds of other residents of the 10-block ring of homes just outside the cleared area have become the latest figures in the long-running tragedy of the nation's most famous chemical dump site.
Since Labor Day the state has been paying more than $7,000 a day for their motel rooms and meals. Scattered across the city in five motels, most of the 385 "second ring" residents have vowed not to go back to their homes because they say the chemical seepage from the Love Canal has made them sick.
State officials say they have found evidence of higher than normal birth defects and fetal deaths among the second ring families, and they recently advised pregnant women and families with children under 2 to stay out of the area.
But the officials said last week that they cannot find any connection between the litany of medical problems claimed by Love Canal area residents now in the motels and the chemicals leaking from the dump site near their homes. On Monday, officials said, the state's motel and food payments will be cut off, and the residents of Love Canal will have to go home.
The cutoff -- twice deferred by state officials seeking some solution to the standoff -- is likely to bring the first physical confrontation over what has become something of a national symbol.
"They'll have to put me in jail before I go back there," said Barbara Quimbly, who has been living with her husband and two children in a room at the Howard Johnson motel here for the last eight weeks.
"This is my home now," Quimby said. "They've given this country a whole new group of its own boat people."
Quimby, 28, said one of her children was born with three major birth defects and the other has respiratory problems. When she found a buyer for their home four blocks from the dump site she said the Federal Housing Administration refused to approve a loan because the house was classified as "high risk" area.
"When the bills start coming I'm going to tell them to send them to Gov. [hugh L.] Carey," said Grace McCoull. She said she stayed away when a delegation of Love Canal residents went to plead their case with Carey during a visit by the governor to Buffalo last month. "I was afraid I'd walk up and punch him in the nose," she said.
Carey surprised the residents when he reversed a longstanding state position and said he would push the legislature in Albany to come up with $5 million to buy second ring homes. New York has already pledged $35 million toward a cleanup effort at Love Canal.
However, state officials declined to tie the new policy to health problems among the residents. A member of the state's Love Canal task force said Friday that the money would be sought becuase of "blight" that has set in since the residents moved out.
Housing blight seems to be the least of the problems that have beset this area since the first indication of chemicals leaking from the dump became known last year.
Aside from several houses with boarded windows and a few runaway gardens, most of the houses appear neat and generally well-cared-for.Gibbs, who head the Love Canal Homeowners Association, which has its office in a house just outside the 10-foot mesh fence blocking access to the dump area, said there has been little crime since the residents moved out.
"This is a very law-abiding area, and most of the people are still proud of their homes," she said. Most of the displaced residents stop by their houses daily to tidy up and pick up their mail."The worst problems are the trucks and the mosquitoes," she said.
Since the Love Canal cleanup began last year nearly 8,000 truckloads of clay have been brought in to seal off the ditch where the chemicals were dumped years ago by the Hooker Chemicals and Plastics Corp.
Health officials also discovered that the presence of such powerful chemicals seeping to the surface of the area here has helped breed a newly aggressive and insecticide-proof type of mosquito.
But the real problem, state health officials admit, is the uncertainty that clouds the whole Love Canal situation. Squads of federal and state experts have combed the dump site and its surrounding neighborbhoods, digging up back yards and boring through flower beds in search of leaking chemicals.
"So far," said Dr. Stephen Kim, the senior state toxicologist on the project, "we just haven't been able to prove that there is any chemical or indicator out there that relates to the canal."
Describing the year-long search through the Love Canal area for leaking chemicals last week, Kim's voice carried on the same note of frustration as did many of the neighborhood's residents.
"There was one trench we dug into this guy's front lawn," he said. "I was sure there would be black gunk down there when we went in. Believe me, I wanted it to be there. But we didn't find it."
Among the 5,000 soil samples gathered from the neighborhood there have been traces of the same chemicals that were dumped into the Love Canal site. But state officials said there is no pattern to the chemical traces, nothing to indicate a flow coming directly from the dump site. Instead, they say they believe that contaminated earth from the Love Canal may have been carried through the neighborhood over the years and used as fill. m
"There's a reality to the concern that those people have there, whether it's in their minds or not," said Kim. "But I can't move on suspicions or fears, I've got to have facts."