InTeGrate Modules and Courses >Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources > Unit 5: Hazardous Waste and Love Canal
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Unit 5: Hazardous Waste and Love Canal

Jill S. Schneiderman (Vassar College) and Meg Stewart (American Museum of Natural History, M.A.T program)

Summary

Students explore the classic case of Love Canal, New York, in which Lois Gibbs—originally described as a "hysterical housewife"—mobilized her community and called attention to the contamination of groundwater by buried hazardous waste and the resulting impact on the health of local residents. The activities require the students to investigate the history of events at Love Canal. The materials in this unit may be used as a stand-alone day of instruction or as part of the complete Environmental Justice and Freshwater Resources InTeGrate Module.

Learning Goals

Unit 5 activities support the module goals of being able to articulate the principles of environmental justice as they relate to examples of water scarcity and contamination in varied geographic locations, and proposing potential solutions to inequitable access to clean water based on principles of the hydrologic cycle. The specific learning objectives for this unit are as follows:

  • Students will create a timeline of the events that occurred at Love Canal in Niagara Falls, New York.
  • Students will compare and contrast Love Canal land use in the past and the current conditions.
  • Students will estimate how long toxic materials and wastes flowed from the source (Love Canal) to the closest homes.
  • Students will label elements in a groundwater hydrologic system.

Context for Use

The material in this unit can be customized to accommodate different teaching needs as detailed in the section below. The activities can be done in class, completed together, or completed as homework, depending on time and subject needs. On its own, this unit communicates the need for an informed and science-literate citizenry to be empowered to make observations of their physical surroundings. The unit explains the power of the individual to call attention to inequitable situations regarding access to clean water.

Description and Teaching Materials

Lesson Plan

In the United States, the work of Lois Gibbs and community members living near Love Canal is a landmark case in the history of water contamination. The concerns of Gibbs and her neighbors in a working class community foreshadows the struggles of communities of color recognized widely a decade later. Gibbs fostered a proactive community of citizens to deal with health, justice and environment issues; a study of Love Canal connects the movement for environmental justice in communities of color in the United States with earlier events in the national environmental movement.

The PowerPoint and in-class activities are interactive and convey information about the events at Love Canal. The PowerPoint contains lecture notes (in the "Notes" view of PowerPoint) Hazardous Waste and Love Canal PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 15MB Jul5 15) that the instructor can use to explain the visual materials. In addition, the PowerPoint contains a link to a Google Earth KMZ file and corresponding questions to stimulate class discussion.

Pre-class Homework: Exploration — Lois Gibbs speaks

Prior to coming to class, students should watch the three videos of Gibbs, now the executive director of the Center for Health, Environment and Justice, speaking about the history of Love Canal (38 min).

Students should come to class having prepared a written timeline that summarizes the history of Love Canal as described by Gibbs.

Activity 5.1 Think-Pair-Share (20 min)

Students work in small groups to compare their timelines of the events at Love Canal. They will work collaboratively in their small groups to combine their timelines and then work to refine them to highlight the ten most significant events, in their view, in the history of Love Canal. Each group should identify at the beginning of the discussion a "recorder" and a "reporter." Using the recorder's notes, the reporter will detail for the class as a whole the timeline that her or his group constructed. An ensuing discussion among the class will focus on events that the class as a whole deems most relevant to establishment of Superfund.

Activity 5.2 PowerPoint Presentation: Timing of Land-Use Changes (10 min)

PowerPoint presentation Hazardous Waste and Love Canal (PowerPoint 2.3MB Jul5 15) - History. After viewing the PowerPoint presentation, the student groups will compare the timelines they generated with the summary history of Love Canal prior to the 1980 passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA), also known as "Superfund." Have students count how many items on their lists were identified in the PowerPoint presentation. Note that the answer to this will depend on the student-generated responses. Continue the historic overview of the events associated with Love Canal to link these events with the creation of CERCLA and to community activism around issues of environmental injustice.

The last slide of the PowerPoint on Love Canal Part 1—History directs the instructor to launch a KMZ file in Google Earth. Use the Love Canal Google Earth file (KMZ File 4kB Apr19 15) to investigate the past land use at Love Canal versus current land use. After opening the file, click on the file called "Love Canal — 1978 to 1980.kmz" that can be found in the Temporary Places section in the Table of Contents (left side of Google Earth window). This will give the instructor some guidance on what to show to the students. The PowerPoint also contains information relevant to this activity.

Love Canal Google Earth info

Using the Love Canal KMZ file Love Canal kmz (KMZ File 4kB Apr19 15), ask students to do the following and record their answers for collection by the instructor.

  1. Compare/contrast present day land use and land use in the 1978 aerial photograph.
  2. Using the ruler tool, estimate distances from landfill to 1978 neighborhoods and present day homes on north-south street to west.
  3. Consider how the Niagara River and the creek to the north might interact with contaminants from the site.

If the students do not have access to a computer and an Internet connection to view Google Earth during class time, the instructor will need to lead this discussion using projection and the teaching computer.

Answer Keys:

  • (or )

Activity 5.3: Timing the Flow of Contaminants (10 min)

PowerPoint presentation on Love Canal Part 2—Hydrology: Having considered the social background and engaged in visual analysis of the Love Canal site, investigate how contamination occurred. This can be done in the following manner and may help the instructor determine whether the students can articulate the amount of time needed that transpired in the contamination of Love Canal: Estimate how long it took for the contamination of Love Canal to flow to the closest homes. The simplified geologic cross section will help the class address this question.

Answer Keys:

  • (or )

Activity 5.4: Getting the Concepts (10 min)

Students will identify the following features on a block diagram of a groundwater system in this concept test: confined (closed) aquifer, unconfined (open) aquifer, confining layer (aquiclude, aquitard).

  • Block Diagram with Symbols (Microsoft Word 2007 (.docx) 169kB May22 15) (or PDF (Acrobat (PDF) 106kB May22 15))
  • (or )

Use this

to test student knowledge of concepts encountered in this unit. Note that the five questions may be used as a stand-alone quiz following instruction of the Unit 5 materials or in a more comprehensive exam.

Teaching Notes and Tips

We suggest the following lesson plan for a 50-minute class. However, these materials would also work well for a longer class period of up to 75 minutes. In class you will need a chalk or whiteboard and computer access to the Internet and Google Earth.

As an alternative to watching the Lois Gibbs video interview in class, particularly in the case of a shorter amount of class time, the instructor may ask the students to watch the video as a pre-class activity.

Encourage students to watch, read, or listen to A Civil Action, the water contamination case in Woburn, Massachusetts, and Erin Brockovich, the fight against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company, both of which provide windows into two other landmark environmental justice cases. Teaching materials connected to A Civil Action appear in the teaching about the A Civil Action case module.

Assessment

Activity 5.4 serves as a summative assessment for this unit.

Various approaches to assessing student understanding from this unit include:

  • Students will create a timeline and summarize the history of Love Canal as described by Lois Gibbs. They will compare their observations with information given in the lecture materials and PowerPoint presentation.
  • Students will compare and contrast Love Canal land use in the past and the current conditions.
  • Students will estimate how long toxic materials and wastes flowed from the source (Love Canal) to the closest homes.
  • Students will use the terms confined aquifer, unconfined aquifer and confining layer and label stratigraphic layers in a groundwater hydrologic system.

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These materials are part of a collection of classroom-tested modules and courses developed by InTeGrate. The materials engage students in understanding the earth system as it intertwines with key societal issues. The collection is freely available and ready to be adapted by undergraduate educators across a range of courses including: general education or majors courses in Earth-focused disciplines such as geoscience or environmental science, social science, engineering, and other sciences, as well as courses for interdisciplinary programs.
Explore the Collection »