General Electric Challenges EPA Over Toxic Waste Clean Up Law

The case is scheduled to be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals for Wash., D.C.

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General Electric cleaned up PCBs from this stretch of the Housatonic River in Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Photo:Nancy Eve Cohen
General Electric Challenges EPA Over Toxic Waste Clean Up Law
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General Electric Challenges EPA Over Toxic Waste Clean Up Law

General Electric has taken the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to court over the use of a legal tool used to push companies to clean up toxic waste. WNPR’s Nancy Cohen reports, the case is scheduled to be heard in the U.S. Court of Appeals tomorrow.

Under federal Superfund law, the EPA can issue what’s called a “unilateral administrative order”. This orders a company that the EPA believes is responsible for polluting a site to clean it up. If the company refuses, the EPA can clean up the contamination using federal money, and then issue a penalty against the company that adds up to three times the cost of the clean up. G.E. says unilateral orders are unconstitutional. Vermont Law School professor Pat Parenteau, a former attorney with EPA New England, says the unilateral order is a potent tool that gets toxic waste cleaned up quickly.

“EPA is saying we’re not going to go to federal court and initiate a very expensive drawn-out lawsuit in order to get a site cleaned up. And we believe that’s what Congress intended for us to do: To get the sites cleaned up as promptly as possible, stop the spread of contamination, and sort out the ‘whose responsible?’ and ‘how much is it going to cost?’ later."

Unilateral orders have been used twice to push for clean up of PCBs in the Housatonic River. The second time, in 1998, the order never went into effect, but it led to a negotiated agreement to remove PCBs from the Housatonic. General Electric did not return calls requesting an interview for this story. Pat Parenteau says this case could make it all the way to the Supreme Court.

For WNPR, I’m Nancy Cohen.

 
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We spoke with General Electric Spokesperson Mark Behan after the radio story was recorded. Behan said, “The provision of Superfund law that gives the government the right to issue an order requiring the expenditure of potentially millions of dollars also gives the government the right to deny G. E., or any other business or individual, the opportunity to go to court to challenge that order and we think that that violates the Constitution.”