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Spokane sues Monsanto for PCB contamination

UPDATED: MONDAY, AUG. 3, 2015, 1:41 P.M.

The city of Spokane has filed a lawsuit against the international agrochemical giant Monsanto, alleging that the company sold chemicals for decades that it knew were a danger to human and environmental health.

The lawsuit, which does not specifically state what the city is seeking in monetary damages, also alleges that Monsanto is responsible for the high levels of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the Spokane River.

Marlene Feist, the city’s utilities spokeswoman, called the suit “long-term litigation,” and noted that the city will spend $300 million to keep PCBs and other pollutants from entering the river in coming years.

PCBs have entered the river by various means, including through commercial and industrial products such as paint, hydraulic fluids, sealants, inks and others.

Charla Lord, a spokeswoman with Monsanto, said in a statement that the company is “reviewing the lawsuit and its allegations. However, Monsanto is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter.”

The Spokane River has elevated levels of PCBs, which have been found in its water, sediments, fish and wildlife. The PCBs enter the river, in part, through the city’s water and stormwater discharges. It is currently trying to meet a 2017 federal deadline to stop pollution from entering the river. It has adopted a Integrated Clean Water Plan, and is adding more levels of treatment at its water treatment plant, efforts that convinced the law firms to represent Spokane, Feist said.

Though the city does not state an amount of money its seeking, the suit said it seeks “compensatory damages,” lawyer’s fees, interest and any other relief the court deems appropriate.

The lawsuit names two companies that spun off from the corporation in the 1990s, and joins other municipalities seeking damages from the company, including San Diego, San Jose and Westport, Massachusetts.

The outside law firms representing the city – Baron and Budd, and Gomez Trial Attorneys – have experience with PCB litigation.

Baron and Budd, a national law firm with environmental litigation experience, currently offers free PCB testing to any school built between 1950 and 1980. According to the firm, it specializes in lawsuits designed to help public entities recover the cost of remediation. The company has worked with people affected by asbestos.

Scott Summy, the lead attorney on the Spokane case, has been the force behind much of this litigation, and regularly represents public water providers whose water is contaminated by chemicals. He was also involved in lawsuits arising out of the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.

Along with Baron and Budd, the Gomez firm is part of San Jose’s case against Monsanto.

Monsanto was the sole producer of PCBs between 1935 and 1979, and the company commonly sold the chemical under the name of Aroclor nationally. According to the suit, the company knew PCBs were toxic while it still produced and marketed the product, but concealed these facts until Congress passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, which banned most PCBS beginning Jan. 1, 1979.

Aroclor was developed by Monsanto as a coolant in electrical transformers and capacitors, but was soon used in a wide variety of household products, from varnishes and lacquers to jewelry and coatings for swimming pools.

Lord, the company’s spokeswoman, noted that the company has produced many products, and has gone through many transformations, over the years.

“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,” Lord wrote in a statement. “The former Monsanto was involved in a wide variety of businesses including the manufacture of PCBs. PCBs were industrial chemicals, which were sold to sophisticated companies who incorporated them as safety fluids into electrical equipment, into plastics, and into thousands of useful construction and building material products. PCBs served an important fire protection and safety purpose for the electrical and other industries. The manufacture of PCBs in the United States was banned in 1979, although the former Monsanto voluntarily ceased production and selling before that.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said that PCBs are probable carcinogens, and PCBs are linked to inducing many types of cancers, including breast, liver, gall bladder, melanoma and others. Evidence suggests that PCBs impair the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system and endocrine system.

Spokane will soon be subject to new limits on the amount of pollutants that can be put in the river while still meeting water quality standards.

The traditional Monsanto company – which produced agricultural, chemical and pharmacy products – was spun off in the 1990s into three separate entities: Monsanto, Solutia and Pharmacia. All three companies are named in the lawsuit brought by Spokane.

While Monsanto said it had no responsibility for the cost of the river’s clean up, it suggested other companies may.

“PCBs sold at the time were a lawful and useful product that was then incorporated by third parties into other useful products,” wrote the spokeswoman Lord. “If improper disposal or other improper uses created the necessity for clean-up costs, then these other third parties would bear responsibility for these costs.”


 

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