BY THE TIME I tracked down Beverly Paigen, she was 81 years old, in declining health, and living in a fog that seemed to be closing in around her.
Due to a stroke she had suffered years earlier, Paigen had forgotten little chunks of her life — names and places, but also timing. She could get confused about the order of events. But as a scientist who had authored nearly 250 papers in her career — and a woman who had once defied one of the most powerful governors in America to stand up for her beliefs — Paigen retained a certain intellectual fortitude and hardwired tenacity. And because of that, she remembered in great detail the moment that I wished to discuss with her for the book I was writing. It was a moment from the late 1970s when, at age 40, Paigen had investigated one of the landmark environmental crises of the 20th century, fought that powerful governor, and ended up changing the world.
“Come to Maine,” Paigen told me when I finally reached her by phone. “We’ll talk.”
I drove north from New Hampshire on a Thursday night in January 2020 — just weeks before the pandemic lockdown. I stayed in a roadside hotel near Bangor and awoke the next morning to travel the rest of the way, past the lobster shacks shuttered for the season, until the highway crossed a narrow strip of sea and dumped me out onto Mount Desert Island, the home of Acadia National Park. Paigen and her husband, Ken, had moved there in 1989, after taking jobs at The Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor. They bought a home just south of town, at the end of a dirt road, with panoramic views of the ocean. It was the sort of place that two scientists who had dedicated their lives to public health could never afford today, and the place where Beverly Paigen greeted me early that morning.
“How’s your book coming?” she asked.
She had a home health aide at her side — and a plan for the day. She was prepared to speak about the harassment she had faced as a female scientist in the 1970s. She was ready to discuss the role that she had played at the time, assisting residents living near an abandoned chemical landfill in Niagara Falls, New York — a neighborhood we know today as Love Canal. She was willing to open up about the price she had paid for that work — what she had lost — and she was eager to show me everything she had saved documenting this pivotal moment in US environmental history.
“We’re talking about a file cabinet,” Paigen said that day, referring to her records. “Four drawers.” And, also, several boxes. “Like, four or five boxes,” she explained. “They’re a mess. But I would give them to you, if you return them.”
We live in a time of environmental reckoning, where every news cycle seems to carry headlines of the latest storm, drought, or climate-related problem. But when Paigen was coming of age a half century ago, there were only a handful of transcendent environmental moments — flashpoints in time when people not only pondered humanity’s impact on the state of the world, but actually stopped and did something about it. There was the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, a book that altered US policy and changed how ordinary people thought about their own lives. There was the Cuyahoga River catching on fire in Cleveland in 1969, a glaring symbol of our industrial decay that led to sweeping legislation to protect the earth. And there was, among other disasters, a place called Love Canal.
It was located 6 miles east of the tourist district in Niagara Falls, and like many problems, it had started with great promise and even good intentions. In the 1890s, an entrepreneur had attempted to dig a canal, diverting the Niagara River just upstream from the falls to create hydroelectric power and a new city. But he didn’t make it far, and in the 1940s, one of the city’s largest employers, Hooker Chemical, acquired the channel and began using it as a dump.
For the next decade, Hooker filled the canal with more than 20,000 tons of chemical waste — including 500 tons of a compound used to make mustard gas, volatile chemicals in danger of catching fire, and elements strong enough to burn one’s skin. They piled up in drums, buried anywhere from 8 to 25 feet below the surface, until March 1952 when the Niagara Falls Board of Education approached Hooker with an offer: It wanted to buy the land.
Hooker executives initially balked at the idea, keenly aware of the contents in the ground and the hazards these contents posed. “We should not sell the property,” one executive declared within a few days of the first sales conversation, “in order to avoid any risks.” But over the course of the spring, Hooker began to come around, mostly due to one reason. “The Love Canal property,” one memo said, “is rapidly becoming a liability.” Executives assured the board of education that the land was safe, that there would be no chemical seepage. The parties agreed that the board would assume all liability going forward. And that fall Hooker arranged to gift the land to the city for a dollar, managing to sound magnanimous about it all — like they were doing everyone a favor. “We feel that the Board of Education has done a fine job in making the compelling demand for additional facilities,” one executive wrote to the school superintendent that October, “and we are anxious to cooperate in any proper way.”
Up went a new school, and, around it grew a thriving neighborhood filled with affordable single-story ranches and young couples scraping their way to the middle class on factory workers’ wages. It was a perfect place to raise a family — at least until 1977. That summer, toxic secrets long buried in Niagara Falls began leaching out of the old canal like never before. Residents could smell chemicals in the air, and in their basements, and could even find sludge pooling on the ground. Frightened mothers decided to call a local scientist for help.
This scientist had a doctorate in biology and a history of taking on corporate polluters in Western New York, confident that pollution was linked to a host of human health problems: miscarriages, birth defects, cancer. Perhaps more importantly, she was a mother, just like them.
Her name was Beverly Paigen.
PAIGEN HAD EARNED her doctorate the hard way. She was the daughter of fundamentalist Christians in rural Illinois, growing up at a time — the 1940s and 1950s — when young girls in her community were supposed to marry young, raise children, and go to church. Instead, she went to college, moved to Buffalo, married and divorced, and by the late 1960s was trying to complete her PhD with her young son at home.
Her job prospects upon graduation were grim. Paigen recalled that in some interviews prospective employers had asked what she was using for birth control. But she finally got hired at Roswell Park — a state-funded research institute affiliated with the University at Buffalo and overseen by the state Department of Health in Albany. It was here that she met and married Ken Paigen and here that she set out to be more than just an academic scientist. “Academic scientists,” she said at the time, “tend not to get involved. They see themselves as distant, objective people seeking truths.”
Paigen wanted to be more than that. She wrote for scientific journals, studied the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, and, in the span of four years in the 1970s, raised nearly a million dollars in grant funding for her research. But she also regularly gave interviews in the local newspapers and published an annual list of the region’s worst polluters. She wanted to connect science with people living in the real world. And so, of course, she was going out to investigate the chemical problems around the old canal in
Niagara Falls. She thought it her duty, and she didn’t try to hide it. On the contrary, Paigen directly informed her bosses at Roswell Park — all men — what she was doing there.
At least initially, they found her choice acceptable. In a formal report in the summer of 1978, Roswell Park’s top doctor called Paigen’s work in the neighborhood “appropriate environmental cancer research.” But in August that year, state health officials ordered the first of several evacuations in the neighborhood. To escape what state officials now deemed a chemical threat, more than 200 families were told to abandon their homes. And yet that still left more than 700 families living near the old canal. Paigen publicly declared that based on her findings, many residents were still at risk, especially families with children — a position that not only put her at odds with her bosses and state health officials, but the governor of New York, Hugh Carey, a prominent Democrat with White House aspirations. Carey made it clear that he didn’t want to evacuate anyone else, and suddenly the tone toward Paigen changed. Her environmental research apparently wasn’t so appropriate anymore.
Her bosses called her on family vacations to demand documents that they knew she could not produce in that moment. “Many abusive phone calls,” Paigen had noted at the time. They restricted her access to the press, worried about what she might say. State health officials denied a research proposal that had once seemed to be fast-tracked to approval, and they also dismissed her work with mothers in the neighborhood — ”useless housewife data,” they called it. But the greatest indignity came months later, in the summer of 1979, as she continued to fight for her own credibility — and for residents in the contaminated neighborhood. For the first time in nearly two decades of living in New York, Beverly Paigen faced a state tax audit.
Officials said it was just a coincidence. She was just case No. 757 out of roughly 1,500 new audits. Yet Paigen couldn’t help but question that, too. At her first meeting, she watched the auditor fumble through her file, spilling newspaper clippings about Love Canal.
“Oh, I knew why they were bugging me,” Paigen told me on my first visit to Maine.
“Really?” I asked.
“Oh, absolutely. They were trying to stop me.”
IT’S A STORY that resonated with people at the time, especially after President Jimmy Carter sided with Paigen in 1980 and approved a proposal to clear the entire neighborhood — anyone who wanted to leave their homes — around the old canal filled with toxic waste. “There have been arguments and a lot of confusion over scientific studies of the Love Canal area,” Carter said at the time, when announcing his decision. “But there can be no argument about the human reality of the problem. People have suffered and are suffering still.”
Then 60 Minutes swooped in to air an interview with Paigen, and briefly she was a star, a name, a woman who had been dismissed by her own bosses, only to get the attention of the president of the United States. But it didn’t last. In the 1970s, according to the US Census Bureau, roughly 10 percent of people working in science, technology, engineering, and math were women, and after the president left town, and 60 Minutes did too, it didn’t end well for the Paigens in Buffalo. Beverly and Ken quit their jobs there in 1982, feeling forced out, unwelcome. As a former health official told me later, there was probably a reason for that. Beverly Paigen was a foot soldier, he said, who had defied the generals in Albany. She had violated the chain of command.
In the end, I spent two days with Paigen in Maine, interviewing her at her dining room table overlooking the ocean and going through the files in her small office inside her house. But I didn’t stop there, or merely rely on her memories. I also filed a freedom of information request with the State of New York asking for access to Paigen’s employment file. It was a file I knew the state had; it was listed as restricted at the state archives in Albany.
I placed my request and I told Paigen that she should do the same. It was her file, after all, and possibly further proof of the challenges she had faced once long ago. But she never got around to it. In February 2020, just days after my second visit to Maine, her husband died at the age of 92. A month later, COVID-19 swept across New England, changing everything. Paigen and I spoke that spring by phone, yet it was hard for her, and then in June 2020 I got a different call — this time from one of her friends. She wanted me to know that Paigen had died. Her daughter would later say her mother had simply lost the will to go on.
Paigen was never in it for her ego or the spotlight. And so, she likely wouldn’t have been overjoyed about this article — or excited about the prominent role she plays in the book I have written recounting the fight at Love Canal in the 1970s. She would have only liked it if she felt the story might inspire someone else, someone younger, to do what she once did. But Paigen was also competitive. If you fought her, she’d fight back, and she surely would have appreciated the package I received in the mail six months after her death.
It was from the State of New York, special delivery, just a small disk inside, filled with 339 pages of previously shielded documents relating to Paigen’s efforts to help people in Niagara Falls in the late 1970s. Reading them, I quickly realized that she had been right: Powerful men in Albany were worried about Paigen, about what she might say, and how she might say it. They wanted to know where she was and who she was talking to, and officials were clearly still worried about her now, 40 years later. Many of the pages had been heavily redacted.
Keith O’Brien is the New York Times best-selling author of “Paradise Falls”, being published this Tuesday by Pantheon Books. He will appear at two in-person events in Massachusetts this week: 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 12, at the Sanctuary in Maynard, hosted by The Silver Unicorn Bookstore; and 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, at Brookline Booksmith. Follow him @KeithOB. Beverly Paigen’s papers are now held by the Tufts Digital Collections and Archives in Medford. Send comments to email@example.com.