Monsanto may have stopped developing Polychlorinated Biphenyls — typically known as PCBs — nearly four decades ago, but on the West Coast, lawsuits associated with this toxic group of chemicals keep mounting against the agrochemical giant.
On Wednesday, the Portland City Council voted to sue the Monsanto Company in federal court. Once Portland files the suit, it will become the seventh city to go after Monsanto over the toxic chemicals it produced, Portland City Attorney Tracy Reeve told ThinkProgress.
“Portland’s elected officials are committed to holding Monsanto accountable for its apparent decision to favor profits over ecological and human health,” Reeve said in a statement. “Monsanto profited from selling PCBs for decades and needs to take responsibility for cleaning up after the mess it created.”
In the resolution unanimously approved by the City Council, Portland claims Monsanto is liable for PCB pollution found in the Willamette River — which crosses the city — the Columbia Slough, and other waterways. PCBs have been widely studied since the class of chemical was first mass manufactured in the late 1920s. Used mainly as insulating fluids in heavy-duty electrical equipment, PCBs were eventually found toxic for humans and wildlife and banned in the United States in 1979.
Several decades ago, Monsanto produced about 99 percent of the PCBs used in the United States. The company marketed its product under the trade name Aroclor. And for decades, companies legally discharged PCBs and PCB mixtures into waterways and landfills. Moreover, farmers and municipalities commonly sprayed dirt roads with PCB oil as a dust suppressant. Monsanto stopped manufacturing PCBs in 1977, but PCBs decay slowly, so they have lingered in the environment.
In a phone interview, Reeve declined to describe what legal avenues Portland will use against Monsanto. She noted, however, that in Portland’s experience Monsanto is not liable under the federal superfund law that places strict liability on polluters even if they indirectly contaminated sites. Still, she believes the law provides a remedy to recover costs attributable to the acts and omissions of those responsible for the contamination.
“The citizens of Portland dug deep in order to pay for cleaning up our mess, and other businesses should be held to that standard,” Portland Mayor Charlie Hales told OPB. The city, he said, has spent more than $1 billion cleaning up the Willamette.
The Portland Harbor — now a superfund site — is known for having elevated levels of PCBs in sediments that come in contact with the Willamette River, according to multiple studies and published reports. That’s a problem for people who live near and play in Portland waterways, but it affects other species as well. The lower Willamette River is a migration corridor for salmon, including several stocks listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported.
Meanwhile, Monsanto has been distancing itself from its past. In a statement, Monsanto said it “is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter.”
“Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901,” the company said. The so-called new Monsanto has been operating since 2000, shortly after the original Monsanto entered into a merger and changed its name to Pharmacia Corporation.
It has been widely reported that in a 1970 internal memo, the original Monsanto told its development committee that PCBs had been shown to be a highly toxic pollutant. And yet the company continued producing PCBs for seven more years. The memo moreover suggests the company knew about PCBs’ harmful effects since at least the mid-60s. Yet that’s not to say the seven cities — Portland, Seattle, Spokane, Berkley, Oakland, San Diego, and San Jose — will see a swift decision from the courts.
Just last year, Monsanto won a lawsuit in St. Louis County, Missouri, that alleged the company was negligent in producing and marketing PCBs in the late 70s. The lawsuit sought relief for people who developed lymphohematopoietic cancer after being exposed to PCBs Monsanto made. That case proved complicated, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch Post reported, because Monsanto Chemical Co. no longer exists, leading to the inclusion of four different companies.
This time, however, Monsanto is not facing private citizens pursuing relief in a local court, but a coalition of West Coast cities that asked a federal court to allow a coordinated lawsuit. That hearing is set for March 31st.