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Supreme Court mulls who pays after toxic spills

US fines Japan shipping firm 1.75 mln for pollution
A Japanese shipping firm has been fined 1.75 million dollars for dumping oily waste into the ocean and falsifying records to cover it up, the US Justice Department said Tuesday. A US District Judge ordered the fine after finding that a Hiong Guan Navegacion Japan vessel had bypassed onboard equipment designed to deal with oil and sludge and dumped the materials directly overboard. The firm pleaded guilty to the charges and to falsifying ship documents to cover up their deeds. After a tip-off from the crew of the M/V Balsa-62, the US Coast Guard inspected the vessel and its log books when it arrived in Tampa, Florida in late 2007 and again in May 2008. The later established that the ship's engineers had been using a "magic pipe" to bypass onboard cleaning machinery. The two men who acted as the ship's chief engineers were fined 1,500 and 1,000 dollars respectively and put on probation for one and three years. "Hiong Guan is paying for failing to follow the law by, among other things, attempting to mislead the Coast Guard with falsified environmental-compliance records," said John Cruden, an assistant attorney general for the Justice Department. Some 400,000 dollars of the fine are to be used for clean-up and conservation projects in the Tampa Bay area. "The successful investigation and prosecution of this case... sends a clear message to owners and operators of commercial vessels that those who choose to intentionally pollute our oceans will be met with swift repercussions and stiff penalties," said Timothy Close, a US Coast Guard captain. Photo courtesy of AFP.
by Staff Writers
Washington (AFP) Feb 24, 2009
The Supreme Court Tuesday heard arguments in a case to determine whether companies can be held financially liable for cleaning up polluted sites even when not directly to blame for the contamination.

The US high court heard petitions in two separate, but similar cases: Burlington Northern v. United States and Shell Oil v. United States.

In the Shell Oil case, the US government is trying to recover the cost of cleaning up a polluted California site, where Brown & Bryant Inc. stored pesticides until an environmental investigation led to its bankruptcy in 1988.

Shell Oil Company, the producer of the chemicals, maintains it should not be held responsible for the cleanup after selling to Brown & Bryant the pesticide called D-D, which leaked into the ground and threatened area water supplies.

The petrochemical giant is an affiliate of Royal Dutch Shell PLC.

In a separate case, two railway companies, Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp. and Union Pacific Corp., maintain they played only a minor role in the contamination of a California site they owned.

The site was leased by a company selling agricultural chemicals, and the railway carriers said they should not have to pay the full bill for cleaning the polluted area, totaling millions of dollars.

At issue is application of the 1996 "Superfund" Law -- formally known as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) -- which could impact any one of numerous highly-polluted Superfund sites around the United States.

A US appeals court held each business accountable for the full expense of the clean-up, including the share that would have been borne by the now-insolvent companies responsible for the contamination.

The court said the companies had "joint and several" liability, making each responsible for the full cleanup cost.

Arguing for the US government, Deputy Solicitor General Malcolm Stewart said: "Shell had control over the delivery process and Shell knew that (...) leaks and spills were inherent in the chosen method."

But making a case for Shell, attorney Kathleen Sullivan refuted the goverment's argument that Shell had a "special responsbility" for disposing of the hazardous material.

The US high court is due to issue a ruling by June.

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Arsenic And Old Toenails
Leicester, UK (SPX) Feb 25, 2009
Scientists from Leicester and Nottingham have devised a method for identifying levels of exposure to environmental arsenic - by testing toenail clippings.

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