Maynard’s Shrine hosts author Keith O’Brien for book talk

In the late 1970s, residents of a small town near Niagara Falls discovered that the place they called home was teeming with toxic chemicals.

This place was called Love Canal and is the subject of “Paradise Falls”, a new book by Keith O’Brien.

O’Brien will launch her book at 7 p.m., Tuesday, April 12, at The Sanctuary, 82 Main St. in Maynard. Hosted by The Silver Unicorn bookstore in Acton, the event will include a discussion of O’Brien’s book followed by a conversation with Boston Globe Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental journalist David Abel, said Paul Swydan, owner of The Silver Unicorn. After the discussion, there will be time for questions.

O’Brien wrote the book to remind people of the continued relevance of Love Canal and to capture the human drama behind what was one of the greatest environmental disasters of the 20th century.

“[It was] one of the great awakening moments when people first began to realize that environmental concerns were not abstract. They could be in their own backyard. They could be in their house. They could be in their water,” he said.

Although this is the story of a neighborhood in Niagara Falls, it is above all a story of citizen activism “and the story of what it takes to attract the attention of the powers that be. “, O’Brien said.

A dream turned sour

For those who don’t know – and O’Brien says most people under 40 probably haven’t heard of Love Canal – it was an abandoned canal project about four miles north. south of Niagara Falls. William T. Love dug the canal, dreaming that the parcel of land east of Niagara Falls, New York, could become a dream community, with hydroelectricity generated by a short canal between the Upper Niagara Rivers and lower. By 1910 he had abandoned the project.

From 1942 to 1953, The Hooker Chemical Company, with government approval, dumped nearly 22,000 tons of chemical waste into the partially dug canal. The company covered the landfill with clay and sold the land to the Niagara Falls School Board for $1 with a clause that the company would be released from any future liability. In the late 1950s, around 100 houses and a school were built on the site. About 800 single-family homes were also built directly beside the canal. The neighborhood was called Love Canal.

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By the late 1970s, the drums containing the chemicals had begun to erode and the chemicals began seeping into backyards and making people sick. There was a high rate of miscarriages and some children were born with birth defects.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared a state of emergency and the government relocated 239 families. He declared a second state of emergency in 1981 and displaced the remaining 700 families.

During his historical research, O’Brien sifted through thousands of documents, sometimes crawling into people’s attics to read old, but not forgotten, transcripts. He interviewed mothers and environmentalists and delved into court records, at one point even filing a Freedom of Information Act request.

“What I have attempted to write here is the story of the people of this neighborhood of Niagara Falls – mostly stay-at-home moms, or as we called them in those days housewives – who, in space two years, have gone from being ignored by local officials, the local superintendent, the local school board to having the ear of the EPA, the White House and even President Carter,” he said.

Women in the foreground

“Paradise Falls” follows Luella Kenny, a mother of three, who lived about 1/10 of a mile from the north edge of Love Canal. Now 80, she remains an activist, trying to shed light on the dangers posed by chemicals.

Book cover

It’s the story of Lois Gibbs, a woman O’Brien calls “the de facto leader of neighborhood residents in the late 1970s.”

“She was the first resident of the neighborhood to try to rally some sort of organization among the residents.

“Lois spent the last 40 years of her life working for environmental justice at a nonprofit she would later found in Washington, DC,” O’Brien said.

He wrote about Beverly Paigen who lived in Buffalo, New York, a biologist at the University at Buffalo. O’Brien met Paigen in Bar Harbor, Maine, where she had lived for 30 years after retirement.

“Beverly is…one of those forgotten heroes. There was nothing she was fighting for here, but she realized early on that the chemical threat in the neighborhood was far greater than she had known. authorities were implying Beverly put her job and livelihood on the line to fight for the residents,” he said.

Paigen died in 2020, but not before O’Brien met her for two days.

Then there’s Bonnie Casper, a young legislative aide at the time, working for Niagara Falls Congressman John LaFalce.

Casper was a driving force in DC, making sure the congressman’s office paid attention to what was happening in Niagara Falls, O’Brien said.

“When I finally found Bonnie, she had kept boxes for decades. And so I went to Washington, DC and searched Bonnie’s boxes,” he said.

When he finished — he started his research in 2019 — O’Brien had interviewed many people who lived at Love Canal.

“It is still the defining moment of their lives and many of the main protagonists of the story have been changed forever by this two-year struggle and have indeed become activists far beyond what they were fighting for. first,” he said.

Book launch info

Tickets to the book launch are $36 and include a signed copy of the book.

All participants must provide identification and proof that they are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 (two weeks after the last vaccination dose) or provide proof of a negative COVID test result from an institution medical certified within 72 hours of the event. Over-the-counter test results are not accepted.

For tickets, visit or call 978-274-2757.

Lola R. McClure