NEW YORK, MAY 17 -- The Army may have dumped radioactive chemical waste into Love Canal, some of it perhaps from the first atomic-bomb project, according to documents unsealed today in U.S. District Court in Buffalo.

Homeowners abandoned the canal area near Niagara Falls more than a decade ago when Hooker Chemical and Plastics Corp. was accused of making it the nation's most infamous toxic dump. Recently, the area has been resettled by families seeking homes at bargain prices.

About 20 pounds of confidential memos, reports and court documents released by U.S. District Judge John T. Curtin also suggest that the federal government may have sought to conceal the alleged Army dumping to avoid jeopardizing its civil suit against Occidental Chemical Corp., which bought Hooker.

According to the documents, the waste may have been released during World War II and the Korean War from the Army's Niagara Falls chemical plant or private plants operating nearby under government contracts. A witness reported dumping pails of waste generated by research for the Manhattan Project, which first produced the bomb.

Release of the documents could affect the trial that began in Buffalo last October, in which the government is suing Occidental for $610 million for cleanup costs and punitive damages. Occidental had pressed Curtin, who is hearing the case without a jury, to unseal them.

The company plans to argue that, because the Army may be partially responsible for the Love Canal pollution, the government must shoulder some of the cleanup costs, Occidental spokesman Alan Hilburg said.

"The government was more concerned in protecting its case against Hooker than protecting justice and fairness," he said. "What you see here is a pattern of coverup."

Lt. Col. Joseph Allred, an Army spokesman in Washington, suggested that Occidental's attorneys are misreading the documents. "The Army consistently maintains that there is no factual basis to the allegations," he said.

Debate about whether the Army dumped chemicals at Love Canal has simmered for years. Several former residents and employees of a private contractor there have told government investigators that they witnessed Army personnel dumping waste at the site.

"It was a big issue, and I remember coming to the White House in late 1978," said Lois Gibbs of Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste Inc. in Arlington, Va. A former Love Canal resident, she was in the forefront of the successful effort to have the government relocate and compensate the dump's neighbors.

"We sat in one of those beautiful rooms, and there was some high-level military person there with medals all across his chest," she said. White House environmental staff members "asked him, did the Army dump at Love Canal? And he just said, 'No, we did not.' And then he left. I couldn't believe that was all."

In a 1981 report, the New York State Assembly's Environmental Conservation Committee said, "Disposal of toxic chemical wastes from the Army and government-related chemical production in the Niagara Falls region contributed significantly to the toxic contamination of Love Canal. Eyewitness evidence establishes conclusively that Army personnel openly, concertedly and repeatedly disposed of drummed materials at Love Canal . . . during the 1940s and early 1950s."