Ghostbusters and the EPA

Today’s post is inspired by an email from Casey, who wondered about a couple of issues in the movie Ghostbusters.  Specifically, was Ray Stantz really a “duly-designated representative of the City, County and State of New York” with any kind of legal authority to order Gozer the Gozerian to leave the city?  And did the EPA have a legal basis for shutting down the Ghostbusters’ containment unit?

I. Were the Ghostbusters Duly-Designated Representatives of New York?

It’s pretty strongly implied in the movie that the mayor of New York authorizes the Ghostbusters to deal with the threat posed by Gozer.  That much covers the city.

Moving one level up, we turn to the county.  The five boroughs of New York City are each coterminous with a county.  For example, New York County covers the same area as Manhattan.  The New York County government is pretty vestigial, with most ordinarily-county-level functions handled by the city.  There are some borough-level officials, such as the Manhattan Borough President’s office, but it has a comparatively tiny budget and is mostly concerned with land use and zoning.  Still, there’s no reason to think that the Ghostbusters couldn’t be appointed to represent New York County as well.

Finally there’s the state level.  New York City obviously has a fair amount of clout in the state of New York, and we suspect the Mayor would have no trouble convincing the governor to give the Ghostbusters state authority in this situation, especially since it was geographically confined to New York City.

So what kind of authorization could there be?  One possibility is that the Ghostbusters could have been made emergency special deputies “for the protection of human life and property during an emergency.” N.Y. County Law § 655.  That would give the Ghostbusters the powers of regular police officers.  Not actually very helpful against an ancient Sumerian deity, but it’s something.  At the very least the qualified immunity would potentially prevent them from being personally liable for collateral damage.

Strictly speaking, all of this state authority would have little effect on the EPA’s jurisdiction (to the extent it has any) or the federal government’s ability to arrest the Ghostbusters or order the shutdown of their facility, but we can assume that the Regional Director of the EPA (actually titled the Regional Administrator), who was present at the mayor’s office, took care of all that.

II. Are Ghosts a Pollutant?

Walter Peck, from the EPA’s “third district,”* thinks the Ghostbusters are scam artists using dangerous chemicals to produce hallucinations and storing hazardous materials in their headquarters.  He alleges that they are in criminal violation of the Environmental Protection Act**, and for some reason, this leads him to shut off the containment grid, resulting in all of the captured ghosts being released.

* The EPA actually divides the country into regions.  Region 2 covers New York.

** There is no such federal law in the United States.  Federal environmental law is a hodgepodge of laws: the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, just to name some of the big ones.  There’s no Environmental Protection Act, though.

Peck is wrong about the Ghostbusters, but if they were storing and releasing hallucinogenic substances then that could qualify as pollution.  For example, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (aka CERCLA aka Superfund) “pollutant or contaminant”

shall include, but not be limited to, any element, substance, compound, or mixture, including disease-causing agents, which after release into the environment and upon exposure, ingestion, inhalation, or assimilation into any organism, either directly from the environment or indirectly by ingestion through food chains, will or may reasonably be anticipated to cause death, disease, behavioral abnormalities, cancer, genetic mutation, physiological malfunctions (including malfunctions in reproduction) or physical deformations, in such organisms or their offspring

42 U.S.C. § 9601(33).  That’s pretty dang broad and would definitely include hallucinogenic gases.

One problem with Peck’s actions is that most of the enforcement mechanisms for pollution control are civil, not criminal, and even in the criminal case there would have to be a trial before any penalties could be assessed.  In fact, it would probably be easier and faster for the EPA to get a temporary restraining order or preliminary injunction in a civil case than to seek criminal penalties.

But we can gloss over all of those issues.  What we really want to know is whether ghosts could qualify as a pollutant.  Of course, for most purposes nothing is a pollutant unless it is discharged into the environment, and the Ghostbusters were doing a good job of preventing that.  But were the ghosts at least a potential pollutant?

I think they could be, at least under some environmental laws.  The fact that ghosts are, in some sense, living organisms doesn’t seem to matter.  For example, disease-causing organisms such as viruses and bacteria can be considered pollutants for purposes of the Clean Water Act.  33 U.S.C. § 1362(13) (defining “toxic pollutant” to include disease-causing agents that cause, among other things, behavior abnormalities); 66 C.F.R. 2960 (describing pathogens as a “leading pollutant” in bodies of water).  The Clean Air Act likewise defines “air pollutant” to include biological substances or matter that enters the air.  42 U.S.C. § 7602(g).

So it appears that the federal government could potentially regulate the release of ghosts into the environment.  Since the Ghostbusters never (voluntarily) released any ghosts, however, I’m not sure the EPA would have much standing to complain.

III. Conclusion

If the movie had been written so that a ghost or two escaped the Ghostbusters’ containment system, the EPA might have been on firmer legal footing.  Alternatively, the EPA might have been able to go after the potential discharge of radiation from the Ghostbusters’ proton packs.

Still, apart from some technical mistakes and omitted detail to keep the plot moving, the legal issues here were pretty minor.  The EPA is probably the right agency, to the extent any federal agency is the correct one, and we can forgive the writers for not wanting to get bogged down with administrative hearings and settlement talks.

18 Responses to Ghostbusters and the EPA

  1. I was under the impression that the real issue was about the unsafe storage of hazardous materials: not that the Ghostbusters were releasing pollutants, but that their ghost trap amounted to an unlicensed hazmat disposal site in the middle of the city. I can easily imagine that running afoul of quite a few local and state laws, this could also require a source control action under CERCLA, something for which the EPA Administrator would be the natural interim remedial project manager until a full team could be spun up.

    Also, any reason why the EPA wouldn’t want to seek an immediate preliminary injunction ordering the Ghostbusters to cease storing additional ghosts, as well as basically shutting down and cordoning off their facility as a Superfund site? It seems pretty firmly in wake-a-judge territory.

    • I was under the impression that the real issue was about the unsafe storage of hazardous materials: not that the Ghostbusters were releasing pollutants, but that their ghost trap amounted to an unlicensed hazmat disposal site in the middle of the city.

      The EPA agent didn’t believe there were any actual ghosts. He made it pretty clear that he thought it was all a scam but there were regular pollutants involved. But even if he believed the Ghostbusters, the EPA might still have had jurisdiction, at least in theory.

      Environmental law is far too complicated (and I know too little about it) to hazardous a guess as to whether the Ghostbusters operation could be shut down, given that no ghosts were escaping. The impression I got from my research is that the environmental laws are all concerned with release into the environment, which the Ghostbusters weren’t doing. It’s possible the laws can reach mere storage, however.

      Also, any reason why the EPA wouldn’t want to seek an immediate preliminary injunction ordering the Ghostbusters to cease storing additional ghosts, as well as basically shutting down and cordoning off their facility as a Superfund site? It seems pretty firmly in wake-a-judge territory.

      That’s why I suggested that it was weird that the EPA agent was making noise about criminal violations. A TRO or preliminary injunction would make much more sense.

      • I believe that CERCLA also covers “threatened releases,” which includes hazmat which is improperly contained. The EPA can require a remedial action to make the storage system appropriate. In this case, I’d say the EPA had a damned good case — if flipping a single power switch can cause a catastrophic release, then the containment system is obviously woefully inadequate (what happens if there’s a blackout?), and even under the EPA agent’s theory that it was storing powerful airborne hallucinogens, that’s still a pretty serious spill they’re risking there…

      • I believe that CERCLA also covers “threatened releases,” which includes hazmat which is improperly contained. The EPA can require a remedial action to make the storage system appropriate.

        Ah, yes, CERCLA does cover that. But the EPA agent’s actions were pretty reckless. If a storage system is inadequate, one doesn’t address it by turning it off but rather by reinforcing it. And of course there would have to have been all kinds of due process before he could walk in and flip the switch anyway.

        if flipping a single power switch can cause a catastrophic release, then the containment system is obviously woefully inadequate (what happens if there’s a blackout?)

        It isn’t clear that they were relying solely on power from the grid, though. We see power being shut off to the containment unit, but that didn’t shut off power to the building (e.g. the red warning light and alarm that went off afterward). So there could have been multiple power sources but one master switch for power to the containment unit.

        For what it’s worth, the script describes the shutdown procedure as involving turning several switches to the off position. I guess they made it more dramatic for the movie.

      • James Pollock

        “if flipping a single power switch can cause a catastrophic release, then the containment system is obviously woefully inadequate (what happens if there’s a blackout?)”

        Computer server rooms have all kinds of redundant power systems in place, but you can still shut off the power to any of the servers by unplugging it from all those power systems. This is why computer security policies included details like “who has a key to the server room door?”

        Any technical security can be overcome by a person who has A) sufficient knowledge and skill, B) access to the premises, and C) sufficient time. This is demonstrated by countless heist movies. In the real world, most data breaches occur because someone who has legitimate access makes a mistake or is compromised.

        That said, tampering with a system that may or may not be hazardous seems like a very poor idea. At a minimum, if the EPA suspected airborne hallucinogens were being used to create the spectral events, I would think the guys who got sent into the containment facility would have on one of those ominous-looking CDC spacesuits.

  2. Here’s what always bothered me — there’s a big device that Peck thinks is associated with the improper containment of environmental waste. The Ghostbusters tell him it’s extremely dangerous to shut it off. He shuts it off.

    Well, what if he’d been right and that was the containment release for 10 tons of noxious substances? That had been illegally but safely stored until this EPA guy shut it off — despite being told it was dangerous?

    I assume the ghostbusters would be strictly liable for damages?

    A civil injunction ordering them to “clean up” and safely dispose of the waste would undoubtedly have been a safer way to go about it.

  3. By the same reasoning which says that vampires are not living people, wouldn’t ghosts never be “living organisms”?

    Would releasing ghosts into the environment count as disposal of human organs (for the same reason that selling your soul to the devil may be considered a trade in human organs)?

    • “Living organism” is my phrase. The laws speak in terms of “biological substances or matter” or “disease-causing agents.” At least some of the ghosts (e.g. Slimer) seem to be at least partly biological. And they can definitely cause (mental) disease through possession.

      But the point about vampires not being living people is that they meet the standard of the Uniform Determination of Death Act. Just because the original person is legally dead does not mean that the vampire isn’t alive in some sense. It’s important not to confuse scientific definitions with legal ones (e.g. mentally ill vs insane).

      Would releasing ghosts into the environment count as disposal of human organs (for the same reason that selling your soul to the devil may be considered a trade in human organs)?

      Do you mean disposal of human remains? I think that’s the better approach, since the ghost organs seem to be nonfunctional. Anyway, I don’t think so. New York law, for example, speaks in terms of the “body of a deceased person,” which suggests the inanimate corpse as apart from the spirit.

  4. On minor a biological rather than legal point: Viruses have no cells and aren’t “living”. It doesn’t actually change the legal point though.

    • Whether or not viruese are alive is a matter of debate. It depends on your definition of “life”. Some say that viruses are simply molecules that react passively when they encounter living things. That’s a bit of a stretch though: you could say the same thing about higher forms of life, namely that they are composed of molecules and they react to their environment. This is especially true of parasitic forms of life that rely on a host to survive. If a tape wrom is alive then why wouldn’t a virus be considered alive? http://www.virology.ws/2004/06/09/are-viruses-living/

  5. I’ve been regular reader here for a while, but my legal experience is near zero. However, this is an issue I’m actually quite familiar with.

    The EPA has a number of angles on this one. First of all, if the containment unit is giving off emissions, the EPA can regulate it under the Clean Air Act. I doubt there is any exemption for ghost traps. If it is producing any gases, like ozone from all the high voltage gear, they would need to get a permit.

    There is another angle, though, one more in tune with Peck’s assessment. EPCRA, the emergency planning and community right-to-know act, requires business that store hazardous chemicals above a certain quantity (there’s a list) need to notify local emergency responders and the EPA of the chemical being stored. They also need to establish local emergency planning committees to keep the community around the site informed of what is stored there and procedures in case of an emergency.

    I don’t believe the EPA has the ability to declare a site to be a Superfund site unless there is actual contamination. Regardless, the EPA could probably close the site down and bring in a hazmat response team to do a site assessment and attempt to contain any leaks. All of the people in the level A protection suits are going to be doing all they can to avoid causing a release – shutting down the grid would be absolutely crazy unless they were certain the grid was empty.

    • What is the maximum amount of ectoplasm I may store legally wtihout having to notify emergency responders? Or, to switch gears, the amount of Kryptonite? Adamantium? Vibranium?

  6. What are the legal ramifications of their proton packs?
    1) Would they count as weapons? Obviously not firearms, but they do cause considerable property damage.
    2) If they are “nuclear accelerators”, wouldn’t there be a _lot_ of regulations to follow?
    3) They seem like more dangerous “weapons of mass destruction” than practically anything I’ve ever seen – simple bad aim (and they look really hard to aim in the first place!) could result in the death of everyone, not just on Earth, but in the universe. Surely that kind of thing would be illegal to even build, much less use?
    4) Probably a lot of other issues I haven’t thought of – these things are dangerous!

    • They could count as weapons for Second Amendment purposes. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be regulated, of course. Using one to kill someone might count as “use of poison” for first degree murder purposes, since protons can cause radiation poisoning.

      They would almost certainly need a specific license from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and quite possibly other agencies (the “unlicensed nuclear accelerator” line is pretty accurate). Presumably the NRC could simply deny the license on the basis that they aren’t safe, so that covers the “illegal to even build” aspect.

    • When the guys are in the hotel elevator at their first job, Egon (if i recall correctly) mentions they have unlicensed particle accelerators on their backs. So to answer your second question, yes there would be regulations, and yes they are breaking those regulations since they obviously include licensure.

  7. On the first point, they are liable for damages though, if we look at Ghostbusters II, the main reason they’ve semi-retired from the busting of self-same ghosts is that the city held them responsible for damages and failed to pay for their services.

  8. Could it be that Peck believed the containment unit was actually releasing the hallucinogens and that shutting it off would halt their release? After all, he assumed the Ghostbusters were liars and frauds, so if they said that shutting the unit off would release its contents, he’d probably assume the opposite was the case.

    Still, he probably would’ve gotten in trouble with the EPA for taking that action without authorization, even if it hadn’t resulted in a supernatural meltdown.

    On the question of whether ghosts such as Slimer are “partly biological,” the premise within the GB universe is that ghosts and other supernatural entities are made of ectoplasm. According to Wikipedia, ectoplasm is supposed to be a sort of spiritual exudation or essence from which supernatural manifestations can materialize, or the medium through which psychokinetic force is transmitted. (It was originally believed to be secreted by spirit mediums during channeling, but this was a hoax using various substances, of course. But in the GB universe it’s clearly real.) It’s not clear to me whether this would qualify as biological. It can hypothetically be a physical secretion of the body, but one which is spiritual in nature and basis.

    Hey, here’s a question: If Ray was a duly designated representative of the city, county, and state, would it have been unethical or illegal for him to claim he was a god? Would that constitute some kind of misrepresentation of his authority? Would it violate separation of church and state?

  9. Regarding the comment about deputized Ghostbusters having “qualified immunity [that] would potentially prevent them from being personally liable for collateral damage,” the 2009 video game added a bit more by making them city contractors covered by an insurance policy provided by the city. During the game, it actually tracks the damage you do and on some consoles you can get achievements for causing the most or least damage.

    The contracting angle is also used as a plot point. The city now has an official appointed by the mayor who is responsible for handling paranormal issues, including the Ghostbusters’ contract. Incidentally, in the game that job is held by… Mr. Walter Peck.

    PS – Sorry about posting to an old topic. I just came across it today.

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