Supreme Court Lets Big Business off the Hook in the Mystery of the $42 Million Pesticide Dump

supreme court pesticide mystery photo

Photo via Pan-UK

Okay, here's a little tale--gather 'round folks. It's a mystery story, too; the best kind. There once was a nefarious agriculture chemical company called Brown & Bryant. The Oil Giant Shell sold millions of dollars of pesticides to B&B;, who stored them in a great big facility in California on land also owned by Union Pacific. Each shared responsibility for the dangerous chemicals. But one day, B&B; came under an environmental investigation for shady practices, and went out of business. The chemicals then spread contamination across the land, a danger to all (and especially to groundwater). Now, 20 years later, the Supreme Court has ruled that none of the companies involved have to pay for the cleanup, and instead the gallant knight Government has to pick up the tab itself. But who was really to blame?Ah, who doesn't love a good mystery? The site, where tons of pesticides were spilled and have leaked into the ground for years, took millions of dollars of government money to clean up. In this case, the government was trying to recoup $42 million of the costs. Should anyone be required to help with the cost? Let's look at the players.

The Suspects
First off, none of this would have happened if Brown & Bryant had been good enough to store the chemicals safely and soundly. But they weren't, and they're not around any longer to help pick up the tab for cleaning up the giant, dangerous mess they made. Consider them the cohort that gets murdered in an early scene of a crime drama. Guilty as charged, but out of the picture and unable to right its wrongs.

Next up, Shell Oil Co. But why would a company that merely sold goods to another need to pay for another's wrongdoing? Well, it's not so simple. Under a Superfund provision in US law, any company that sells hazardous chemicals like pesticides is responsible for dictating how those chemicals are received and store. Thus, Shell should have played an active role in making sure the pesticides it sold to B&B; were properly stored.

But. What if Shell did its best to do exactly that, to no avail? This is where things get gray: According to Bloomberg,

Justice John Paul Stevens took a more favorable view of the company's actions. Shell "took numerous steps to encourage its distributors to reduce the likelihood of such spills," Stevens said, pointing to safety manuals provided by the company and other steps. "Although Shell's efforts were less than wholly successful, given these facts, Shell's mere knowledge that spills and leaks continued to occur is insufficient grounds for concluding that Shell 'arranged for the disposal of D-D.'"

A Twist?
Ah-ha! But if Shell knew that leaks were occurring, and they were required by law to dictate the methods for safe storage, aren't they at least somewhat guilty? Not according to the Supreme Court.

As for the railroads, they apparently owned and leased 19% of the land that B&B; used to store the chemicals on. Should they be required to ensure that hazardous spillage doesn't take place on their land? Evidently not. They may have to pay a small amount, but the Supreme Court has shifted the financial burden back to the federal government.

This mystery raises a lot of questions—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.

Perhaps it's destined to remain a mystery . . .

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