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First Responders' Environmental Liability Due to Mass Decontamination Runoff

NCJ Number
Date Published
July 2000
3 pages
This document examines the issues concerning first responders’ liability during a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) terrorist incident.
Environmental liability resulting from critical lifesaving actions may seem unlikely, but could be a serious concern for many first responders. This concern is not limited to WMD terrorist incidents but includes the National Response System (NRS) and the hazardous materials response community. The “Good Samaritan” provision states that no person is liable for costs or damages as a result of actions taken in the course of rendering care, assistance, or advice. It also states that this applies to an incident involving any releases of hazardous substance. Releases of chemical and biological warfare agents due to a terrorist incident are considered hazardous materials incidents and therefore this rule could apply. It also provides that State and local governments are not liable as a result of actions taken in response to an emergency created by the release of a hazardous substance generated by another person. However, the provision does not apply to costs or damages caused by gross negligence or intentional misconduct by the State or local government. Once any imminent threats to human health and lives are addressed, first responders should immediately take all reasonable efforts to contain the contamination and avoid or mitigate environmental consequences. First responders should consult legal counsel in their State to discuss authority, status as an agent of the State, immunities, and indemnification. During a WMD incident, once the victims are removed and safe from further harm and the site is secured and stable, the first responders should be doing everything reasonable to prevent further migration of contamination into the environment. First responders should involve State and Federal officials as soon as possible to reduce potential liability concerns. By involving the Federal On-Scene Coordinator, first responders can substantially reduce their potential liability.