Taxpayers, get ready to spend more to clean up hazardous-waste sites. With a precedent-setting decision, the Supreme Court just made it a little easier for companies who are involved in environmental contamination to pass the buck to the government.
Here’s what happened: Shell Oil sold millions of dollars worth of pesticides to an agricultural company called Brown & Bryant, which stored the chemicals improperly. Later, the company went out of business, and it was discovered that those cheicals had contaminated the nearby land, which was later designated a Superfund site.
Treehugger points out that this case raises some interesting (and potentially troubling) questions about corporate culpability:
…once a company sells hazardous chemicals, is it responsible for ensuring they’re kept safe? Or is it out of their hands entirely? Should companies that lease land to businesses that have potentially dangerous environmental practices be responsible for the safeguarding of that land? Or should the government have to pick up the tab in unfortunate situations like this[?]
The Supreme Court answered a resounding “yes” to that last question. A lower court ruled that Shell was responsible for clean up, but today, the high court overturned that decision 8-1, stating that the fact that Shell knew that the chemicals had leaked didn’t make the company blameworthy. Ginsburg was the sole dissenter:
In dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that Shell was “well aware” that its deliveries “directly and routinely” resulted in spills and leaks for more than 20 years. She added that she would have placed the cleanup costs on a company “whose activities contributed to the contamination rather than on the taxpaying public.”
With an estimated $42 million price tag on the clean up, I would prefer that Shell pay, too.