Author Keith O’Brien to speak in Carmel about new book chronicling environmental disaster


By Les Morris

Environmental activism is seen frequently today, but 45 years ago that was hardly the case. Author Keith O’Brien draws on that history in his new book, “Paradise Falls,” which will be released April 12 by Pantheon.

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O’Brien will speak about the book at 4 p.m. April 15 at Woodland Country Club, 100 Woodland Ln., as part of the Carmel Clay Public Library Foundation’s Visiting Author Series. The event is free, but reservations are required.

“Paradise Falls” centers on the environmental crisis at what was called Love Canal in Niagara Falls, N.Y., and the efforts of regular citizens to take their fight to the highest levels of the U.S. government.

“I’m always drawn to the stories of ordinary people who did extraordinary things, and in this story, we have that writ large,” O’Brien said. “(It’s a tale of how people who) don’t have a voice can make their voices heard by standing up for what they feel was right.”

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‘Paradise Falls’ will be released April 12. (Photo courtesy of Keith O’Brien)

The parents in the neighborhood featured in the book enjoyed the community, which included a school, playground and rows of affordable homes, but the first signs of trouble appeared in the spring of 1977 when chemical odors began to seep into the houses. One of the neighborhood’s mothers, Luella Kenny, believed the chemicals were making her son sick.

Love Canal was the name of an old, forgotten waterway buried beneath the heart of the neighborhood. It was purposefully plied with tons of chemical waste from the manufacturing processes of Hooker Chemical, the largest employer and industrial taxpayer in town with a 135-acre campus.

O’Brien writes in the introduction to the book, set in May 1972, that the Love Canal housewives had no political experience and were reminded of that fact often by their opponents. But their passion and activism changed American environmental policy forever. In the summer of 1978, President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a federal health emergency and ordered its cleanup, the first time in U.S. history emergency funds were used for a situation other than a national disaster.

Two years later, Congress passed the landmark Superfund legislation, and Love Canal became the first entry on that legislation’s cleanup list.

“In the span of two years,” O’Brien said, “ordinary housewives went from being ignored by their local school board to having the ear of the Environmental Protection Agency, White House and President Carter to change environmental policy forever.”

To reserve a seat at the event, email Kristi Litzsinger at [email protected] or call 317-814-3984.