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Lois Gibbs, Luella Kenny, and other mothers loved their neighborhood on the east side of Niagara Falls. It had an elementary school, a playground, and rows of affordable homes. In the spring of 1977, pungent odors began to seep into these little houses, and it didn’t take long for worried mothers to identify the curious scent. It was the sickly-sweet smell of chemicals.
In this propulsive work of narrative reportage, Keith O’Brien uncovers how Lois Gibbs and Luella Kenny exposed the poisonous secrets buried in their neighborhood. The school and playground had been built atop an old canal—the Love Canal, it was called. The city’s largest employer, Hooker Chemical, had quietly filled this canal with 20,000 tons of toxic waste in the 1940s and 1950s. This waste was now leaching to the surface, causing a public health crisis the likes of which America had never seen before—and sparking new and specific fears. Luella Kenny believed the chemicals were making her son sick.
O’Brien braids together the previously unknown stories of Hooker Chemical’s deeds; the local newspaperman, scientist, and congressional staffer who tried to help; the city and state officials who didn’t; and the heroic women who stood up to corporate and governmental indifference to save their families and their children. They would take their fight all the way to the top, winning support from the E.P.A. and the White House, even President Jimmy Carter himself, and by the time it was over, they would capture the American imagination. Sweeping and electrifying, Paradise Falls brings to life a defining story from our past, laying bare how the dauntless efforts of a few women helped to spark the modern environmental movement as we know it today.