Existing Safe Harbor for Lead Exposure Lawsuit Ruled on by California Court

Last Updated: February 1, 2024By Categories: Newsline, Safety

The California Superior Court’s ruling on the Mateel Environmental Justice Foundation motion for judgment on the pleadings is in, and it’s good news for those concerned about the existing safe harbor for lead exposure.

The Court has upheld the state-established maximum exposure level of 0.5 micrograms/day, concluding the state agency responsible for establishing that safe harbor did not act in a manner that was either arbitrary, capricious, or entirely lacking in evidentiary support. Rather, the Court found the state agency (California Office of Environmental Hazard Assessment) appropriately relied on its scientific expertise when reviewing complex scientific data and in interpreting its own regulations.

While the plaintiff, Mateel, had argued the agency did not base the safe harbor level on adequate scientific studies, the Court rejected that argument. While the safe harbor was set using a somewhat unique approach, relying heavily on findings of a separate governmental entity, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Court noted those OSHA studies were “of high scientific caliber,” and the state’s reliance on those studies was not arbitrary or inconsistent with its statutory duties.

The Court noted Mateel’s arguments with respect to those scientific studies, rather than proving their inadequacy, actually demonstrated why deference to the decisions of state agencies, especially agencies with a high level of scientific expertise, is so important.

Ultimately, the Court rejected Mateel’s various assertions and concluded the state’s actions were reasonable and consistent with the flexibility built into Proposition 65, also known as the Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. Thus, the Court deferred to the state and upheld the existing safe harbor exposure level as consistent with Proposition 65.

A ruling in Mateel’s favor would have had sweeping effects for businesses operating in California and businesses that serve California’s large market for consumer products. Thousands of manufacturers, processors, distributors, retailers—and businesses that work with California’s public water supply—regularly rely on the safe harbor for lead exposure in daily operations.

The Court concluded, “In sum, the determination of how to properly set the MADL [maximum allowable dose level] was made by an expert scientific agency reviewing complex scientific data and interpreting its own regulations in light of its scientific expertise, and its decisions were neither arbitrary nor capricious nor entirely lacking in evidentiary support.”

Click here to read the Court’s written opinion.

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