Imminent and Substantial Endangerment Under RCRA: Not Everything Qualifies

Attorneys who have litigated citizen suits under RCRA have often wondered if there is any possible risk that would not qualify as an “imminent and substantial endangerment,” thus subjecting the person who “contributed” to such endangerment to liability under RCRA.

In Scotchtown Holdings v. Town of Goshen, the District Court for the Southern District of New York earlier this month established at least some outer parameters for this seemingly boundless phrase. In Scotchtown Holdings, the owner of land allegedly contaminated by the defendant’s use of sodium chloride – also known as salt to the uninitiated – caused groundwater contamination that precluded development of the plaintiff’s property for residential use.

The court granted the defendant’s motion to dismiss on the ground that, because the property had not already been developed – and because the contamination meant that it would not be developed – there was no imminent and substantial endangerment.

It may be that this decision is obvious and unremarkable. It is certainly distinguishable from cases where at least a potential future exposure exists if no cleanup were to occur and current land uses remain unchanged.  In Scotchtown Holdings, no exposure would occur unless land use were to change.  Nonetheless, for those of us who thought that the presence of contamination almost meant that an imminent and substantial endangerment existed, QED, the decision is a breath of fresh air.

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