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Decades later, efforts persist to promote awareness of Love Canal

A picture of a young boy in a striped shirt. The boy is smiling with his back turned. The picture sits on a glass table.
Dallas Taylor | WBFO
Luella Kenny’s son, John, would be 52 years old if he was alive today. Instead, he died from an immune response disease at age 7, and Kenny largely points to the chemical pollution at Love Canal.

It’s more than 40 years since the Love Canal Environmental Disaster, but it has a lasting impact, especially for those personally affected.

Luella Kenny’s son, John, would be 52 years old if he was alive today. Instead, he died from an immune response disease at age 7, and Kenny largely points to the chemical pollution at Love Canal.

But she says it’s concerning that awareness has decreased over the years.

“People have to understand what the consequences are, and we have to be aware. And we have to monitor, you know, what is happening, and we can't allow it to happen because it's very dangerous to our children," Kenny said. "Where's the awareness when you see children yards away from all those chemicals, playing on those swings? I mean, that is so wrong, so very wrong.”

Sharing that knowledge isn’t limited to word of mouth.

Numerous re-tellings are focusing on the Love Canal tragedy, and now filmmaker Jamila Ephron is helping spread the message through the PBS documentary series American Experience.

The documentary, which premiers Monday, is called “Poisoned Ground.”

The Love Canal disaster is unique because of how many witnesses are around to share their perspectives," Ephron said.

“I've done a number of historical documentaries, many for American Experience, and we rarely have this breadth of living witnesses to kind of help tell the story,” she said.

From the start, Kenny worked closely with Love Canal Homeowners Association President Lois Gibbs, and other mothers from the area, to show how much of a health risk the site really was.

Those shared experiences helped forge bonds to last through the years, Kenny said.

“There was nobody else. In fact, after (one of the books) came out, I had my own relatives, they read the book," she said. "And then they called me and they said, ‘Louella, we never had any idea what you were going through.’ And I know because I was wishing that people would invite me for a home-cooked meal or something, but you know, that didn't happen."

I don't think anyone really realized or understood what was going on. But we just, you know, we stayed on our own, and we did become very close with all of these families. And we're still very close to them today.”

American Experience Executive Director Cameo George was aware of Love Canal growing up but says working on the documentary increased her understanding.

“They, themselves, talk about the fact that they didn't have degrees in this," she said. "They consider themselves ordinary people … who were thrown into this extraordinary situation, and just the amount of uncertainty and fear that there was at the beginning, compared to where they ended up, and how much they were actually able to change.”

The efforts of Kenny, Gibbs, and others demonstrate what can be achieved even from a community level, Ephron said.

“It's about a story of, kind of, people taking control of their community and fighting for themselves, and organizing themselves, and learning how to change their circumstances," she said. "They didn't have a roadmap for this. And so we could really, kind of, explore how a grassroots movement gets formed.”

In addition to the other achievements of Love Canal residents, it also marked the first Superfund site in the U.S., setting the precedent for the cleanup of environmental disasters and contaminated communities.

“Poisoned Ground” airs 9 p.m. Monday, 4:30 p.m. Saturday, and 12:30 a.m. April 29 on WNED PBS.