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, and is at fault for polluting the Spokane River.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Spokane, is similar to suits filed recently by San Diego and San Jose against the Missouri-based agriculture company for compromising municipal water sources with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Marlene Feist, the city’s utilities spokeswoman, called the suit “long-term litigation,” acknowledging that the city didn’t specify the damages being sought. She noted that the city will spend $300 million in coming years to keep PCBs and other pollutants from entering the river.
Monsanto was the sole producer of PCBs between 1935 and 1979, when Congress banned them under the Toxic Substances Control Act. Until then, the company commonly sold the chemical under the name of Aroclor, which was developed by Monsanto as a coolant in electrical transformers and capacitors. It was soon used in an array of industrial, commercial and household products.
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.
Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman, 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.”
Monsanto only sold PCBs as a “lawful and useful product that was then incorporated by third parties into other useful products,” Lord said. “If improper disposal or other improper uses created the necessity for cleanup costs, then these other third parties would bear responsibility for these costs.”
The Spokane River has long been known to contain elevated levels of PCBs, which have been found in its water, sediments, fish and wildlife. The chemical has entered the river by various means, including through commercial and industrial products such as paint, hydraulic fluids, sealants and inks. Today, PCBs primarily enter through the city’s water and stormwater discharges.
The city is trying to meet a 2017 federal deadline to stop pollution from entering the river. It has adopted an Integrated Clean Water Plan, and is adding more levels of treatment at its water treatment plant.
“The package of projects we have to clean up the river is the biggest public works project we’ve ever done at the city,” said Feist. “We know it’s expensive for our citizens to have all that cost covered.”
Feist said it would be a “good outcome” if Monsanto helped pay for environmental remediation related to PCBs.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said the city had a $60 million “donut hole” for cleanup projects that are not eligible for state or federal grant funding because they are not mandated by the Clean Water Act.
“In a perfect world, Monsanto would pay to clean up all the PCB projects,” he said. “Monsanto knew that they were poisoning the environment. It’s like the tobacco cases. There are documents that exist that say, ‘We know we are creating an environmental disaster for the rest of the world.’ They knew about these but they keep putting them in the environment.”
No other local jurisdictions are party to the lawsuit. Several key officials at Spokane County said they were not aware of the suit.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice and its Spokane Riverkeeper program, applauded the city for working collaboratively and taking part in the Spokane River Regional Toxics Task Force, which includes government, business and environmental representatives.
Eichstaedt said that the acceptable limit for PCBs is currently set at three parts per quadrillion.
“Three parts per quadrillion is like finding $3 bills in Canada,” he said, noting the “impossibility of the task” is recognized by the city and leads to many questions that are still unanswered.
“Where exactly are these things coming from? We just really don’t know,” he said. “What stretches of the river are problems? How much is coming from the aquifer? How much is coming from the point problems, like Kaiser and Inland Empire, among others?”
Inland Empire Paper is owned by the Cowles Co., which also owns The Spokesman-Review.
“Nobody disagrees that we need to clean up PCBs,” Eichstaedt said. “And the city is having to bear the brunt of a lot of this responsibility.”
Beside Monsanto, the city’s lawsuit names two other companies that spun off from the company in the 1990s, Solutia and Pharmacia, which manufacture chemical and pharmacy products, respectively.
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. … The manufacture of PCBs in the United States was banned in 1979, although the former Monsanto voluntarily ceased production and selling before that.”
The outside law firms representing the city – Baron and Budd, and Gomez Trial Attorneys – have experience with PCB litigation, and represent San Diego and San Jose in their suits against the agrochemical company.
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.
Feist said the firms approached Spokane about the lawsuit in the spring after learning of the city’s plans to deal with the river’s pollution.