The EPA and Ghostbusters—a story of overregulation

October 27, 2022 | By BRITTANY HUNTER
Ghostbusters standing behind movie title

Anyone who follows the Supreme Court’s environmental cases (or any follower of PLF’s casework) can tell you that there are few (if any) limits to what the Environmental Protection Agency thinks it has jurisdiction over.

Even if that jurisdiction is the Ghostbusters headquarters.

Ghostbusters, the 1984 comedy classic starring Bill Murray, Dan Akroyd, and Harold Ramis, is a story about a group of bumbling but lovable scientists who start a business hunting and catching ghosts and supernatural spookies in New York City. But it’s also a story about EPA overregulation—and the dangers that can bring.

Overreach and overregulating

In Ghostbusters, EPA agent Walter Peck comes after the Ghostbusters because he thinks their ghost storage facility could be polluting the ground of New York City. “Why do you want to see the storage facility?” Peter Venkman, Bill Murray’s character, asks Peck.

Peck replies:

Well, because I’m curious. I want to know more about what you do here. Frankly there’ve been a lot of wild stories in the media, and we want to assess any possible environmental impact from your operation. For instance, the presence of noxious, possibly hazardous waste chemicals. Now you either show me, or I come back with a court order.

While it’s a ridiculous premise that storing captured ghosts could pollute New York City, the EPA regularly uses flimsy justifications for expensive and many-times-unnecessary tests and oversight.

Take, for example, what the EPA did to PLF client, a farmer in Wyoming. In 2012, Johnson built a stock pond to water his livestock and provide benefits for fish, wildlife, and migratory birds. But in 2014, even though Johnson obtained all the proper permits and permissions when he built the stock pond, the EPA threatened to fine him $37,500 a day if he didn’t fill it in. The EPA claimed the pond violated the Clean Water Act, even though stock ponds are exempt from the CWA and the pond isn’t connected to any navigable water.

The EPA eventually settled with Johnson and agreed not to pursue any further enforcement actions against him. But if Johnson wasn’t willing to fight back against the EPA with the help of PLF, there’s no telling how far the EPA would have gone to punish him.

The real-life dangers

When Walter Peck storms into the Ghostbusters’ headquarters and demands they shut off power to their ghost storage machinery, they try to warn him of the damage that will cause. Peck, wanting to flex his power and authority, turns the power off anyway, telling the Ghostbusters, “You had your chance to cooperate, but you thought it would be more fun to insult me. Well, now it’s my turn.” As soon as Peck shuts off the machine, hordes of ghosts, goblins, and ghouls, predictably, are set free on the Big Apple.

Not to spoil the movie, but the Ghostbusters ultimately prevail and save the city from the paranormal result of Peck’s power trip (manifested by a giant Mr. Stay Puft marshmallow man).

Peck’s desire to assert his authority made everyone less safe. Unfortunately, that also happens with the real-life EPA.

U.S. Navy veteran Joe Robertson lived with his wife in the Montana woods, where dangerous forest fires are frequently a threat. To protect his home from fires, Joe dug some small ponds around the house to collect water that could be used to fight fires. But when the EPA found out about Joe’s small ponds, they claimed he was violating the CWA (regardless of the fact that Joe’s home is more than 40 miles from the nearest navigable river). The EPA criminally prosecuted Joe for not obtaining the proper permits from the Army Corps of Engineers, sent the 77-year-old to prison for 18 months, and fined him $130,000.

Joe spent over a year in prison and was forced to pay thousands of dollars because the EPA chose to ignore logic and thus overregulate. Joe died in 2019.A few months later the courts vacated his conviction and fine. But the damage the EPA inflicted on Joe’s life was already done. Not only did Joe and his family suffer, but the forest where Joe lived was left vulnerable to wildfires as a result of the EPA’s actions.

Fighting overreach all the way to the top

When an all-powerful supernatural being is threatening to destroy the city of New York, the mayor calls the Ghostbusters into his office to try to learn what exactly is going on. He also calls in Peck to get his take on the situation. EPA agent Peck, despite seeing with his own eyes the damage from the supernatural beings, tries to punish the Ghostbusters, rather than let them save the city.

Fortunately for the citizens of New York, the fictional mayor listens to the Ghostbusters over Peck and the EPA.

Now property owners around the country are waiting to see if the real-life Supreme Court will listen to PLF over the EPA in the case of Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, which the Court heard earlier this month.

The Sacketts have spent the past 15 years locked in a legal dispute with the EPA. In 2004, they bought a parcel of land in a subdivision where they planned to build a modest three-bedroom home. They obtained all the necessary permits and began construction in 2007, but then the EPA demanded they stop. The agency alleged the Sacketts’ land was a federally protected wetland and building on it would violate the Clean Water Act.

The EPA provided no proof that the Sacketts’ land was a wetland and even tried to claim the Sacketts didn’t have the right to challenge their ruling. In 2012 the Court ruled unanimously that the Sacketts did in fact have the right to challenge the EPA in court, and this year the Court heard arguments on the scope of the EPA’s power and jurisdiction.

The Court is expected to release its ruling in the Sackett case this spring. It should provide some much-needed clarity on what property the EPA can regulate, and how they can do it.

While it’s usually not a good idea to turn to a movie like Ghostbusters for insight on America’s administrative state, sometimes art does imitate real life. If you’ve got a ghost problem, call the Ghostbusters. If you’ve got a problem with an overregulating government agency, call the constitutional attorneys at PLF.