Toto, I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Massachusetts Anymore: Exceeding a Cleanup Standard Is Not Necessarily An Imminent Hazard

In an interesting decision issued earlier this month, Judge Lewis Babcock of the District of Colorado ruled, in County of La Plata v. Brown Group Retail, that detection of contamination at levels exceeding state cleanup standards does not, by itself constitute an imminent and substantial endangerment under RCRA. I think that Judge Babcock is correct, but I can’t help but feel that the decision might be different in the blue state of Massachusetts. I was particularly taken by Judge Babcock’s description of the nature and purpose of state regulatory standards:

Regulatory screening levels, action levels, and standards do not identify real or actual risks to human health. Rather, these regulations are designed to protect the public health by identifying the level of chemical exposure at which there is no threat of harm with a large margin of error. Exceedance of regulatory screening levels, action levels, or standards therefore does not demonstrate a real or actual risk to human health.

Tell it to MassDEP.

I think it’s wonderful that a federal judge has said that “regulatory … standards do not identify real or actual risks to human health.” He’s right, of course, and we often forget that when conservative assumption is piled on top of conservative assumption in the establishment of a standard, the standard may end up having only the most tenuous connection to any actual concern about human health.

I wish I could make equally kind statements about Judge Babcock’s handling of the CERCLA claims in the same case. Like many judges implementing the Supreme Court’s decision in Burlington Northern, Judge Babcock shrugged off the defendant’s divisibility arguments, notwithstanding that the arguments the defendant made were well within the ambit of the types of considerations the Supreme Court said were relevant in Burlington Northern. I feel we are destined to continue the cycle of lower court decisions which simple-mindedly whack the defendant, followed every few years by a Supreme Court decision that says fairly simply: No, that’s not the way it’s supposed to be.

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