The Justice Department yesterday filed more than $124 million in lawsuits charging Hooker Chemical Corp and its parent firm, Occidental Petroleum Corp., with dumping 194,000 tons of hazardous wastes in and around the Love Canal area of New York.
The package of four suits is the biggest environmental protection action ever filed. Both Assistant Attorney General James Moorman and Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Barbara Blum hailed it as an innovative landmark case that will set a precedent for future prosecutions of toxic chemical dumping nationwide.
The package, filed at U.S. District Court in Buffalo, asks that the two companies pay $117.5 million to clean up four Niagara Falls, N.Y., dump sites, and that they reimburse the government the $7 million it spent in diagnosing the situation there.
The cleanup costs would include payment for complete medical reports and follow-up for all residents of the Love Canal and Hyde Park areas for the rest of their lives. Blum estimated that cost at $2 million per year. Also, civil fines of up to $7,000 per day of violation could be levied by a judge.
President Carter declared the Love Canal a national emergency area in 1978 after hundreds of families abandoned their homes to the fumes and vapors of hundreds of deteriorating metal drums full of chemicals. Studies found higher-than-normal rates of miscarriage, blood disease and other ailments among the residents. A school built over Love Canal after Hooker stopped using it in 1953 was abandoned.
"Today's suits should serve notice to those who generate or handle hazardous wastes that these kinds of dangers no longer will be tolerated by the American public," Blum said at a news conference. "The problem of unsafe waste disposal is a serious one: we're serious about attacking it."
She said EPA and the Justice Department plan to file at least 50 suits on the subject during 1980. Moorman called toxic wastes the top priority of his land and natural resources unit, where 28 of 182 attorneys specialize in the subject.
"The problem will be the degree to which corporations like Hooker can insulate themselves from liability by turning the dumping over to a small disposal outlet or a subsidiary," said Moorman. "This is the first suit that faces that foursquare." Another dumping case was filed against Hooker earlier this week in California.
The 10-month investigation by EPA found 82 toxic chemicals in the soil, water and air around the four New York dumps, Blum said. Although use of the sites ended in 1975, the chemicals are still leaching out of the soil into the Niagara River, evaporating into the air and surfacing on the land, the complaint alleged.
Removing 40 truckloads of chemicals at the request of the state in 1958, Hooker found "an oily like residue that burned much like a Fourth of July sparkler," the suit said.
People walking across the 102d Street landfill site were injured by explosions, and children were burned there while playing with "fire rocks" they found on the land, the suits charged.
Although the toxins have not been found in Nagara Falls drinking water, "at any moment, a slug of toxic waste could migrate . . . into the drinking water supply, which could result in a human health disaster," the complaint said.
Dumping occurred at the 16-acre Love Canal Site from 1942 to 1953, the suit said. The abandoned canal, originally intended to bypass Niagara Falls six miles away, was bought by Hooker and became the receptacle for 21,000 tons of chloroform, deadly dioxin and other chemicals. The company "knew or should have known the dangers associated with these wastes" but did nothing to prevent them from seeping into nearby basements, the government charged.
At the 102d Street site, Hooker dumped 23,000 tons of waste, and Olin Corp., also named in the suit, dumped 66,000 tons of chemicals, the charges continued.
When Hooker stopped dumping at Love Canal, it began dumping at the Hyde Park landfill, where it deposited 80,000 tons of chemicals, the suit said. An additional 70,000 tons went to a site 200 yards from the city's drinking water treatment plant.
Cleanup, the suits said, will involve a concrete wall built up from bedrock at eace site, a clay cap over Love Canal, and a leachate collection system elsewhere, plus air-and water-monitoring. One polluted creek, Bloody Run, will be diverted so its bed can be cleaned.
Responding, Hooker President Donald F. Bader said the suits were "unwarranted and will be vigorously resisted." Leakage at Love Canal and slight burns to some children occurred after "ill-advised road construction" on the site in the late 1950s, after Hooker sold it, and the company has been working on remedial programs, Bader said.
"Except for the incident of the children, it has been proven that not a single person has been injured by the company's practices at any of these former waste-disposal sites and that Hooker is taking every precaution," Bader said. He called the lawsuits "time-consuming and counterproductive."