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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Monsanto lawsuits by Western cities can’t be combined, judges say

A panel of federal judges denied a request to combine six lawsuits brought by six Western cities – including Spokane – against the international agrochemical giant Monsanto.

The decision was made Thursday by the six judges who sit on the Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation.

The cities are suing the company for selling chemicals for decades that it allegedly knew were a danger to human and environmental health. The panel found that joining the lawsuits was unneeded.

“On the basis of the papers filed and the hearing session held, we conclude that centralization is not necessary for the convenience of the parties and witnesses or to further the just and efficient conduct of this litigation,” according to the decision.

Lawyers from the cities of Spokane, Seattle, Portland and San Diego traveled to California last week to ask the judges to combine their lawsuits against Monsanto for knowingly polluting the cities’ waterways. The California cities of San Jose, Oakland and Berkeley also have lawsuits against the company. Portland has authorized action against the company, but has not yet filed a lawsuit. Los Angeles County and its city of Long Beach are considering suing the company as well.

Spokane City Councilwoman Amber Waldref joined City Attorney Nancy Isserlis in Santa Barbara to argue for the consolidation.

Spokane was among the first cities to sue the Missouri-based agriculture company for compromising municipal water sources with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

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.

Representatives from Monsanto argue that the company sold PCBs as “a lawful and useful product,” was not involved in its disposal and has since been broken up into three distinct companies.

Waldref, chairwoman of the city’s Public Works Committee, said before Thursday’s ruling that she expected the panel to refuse the request. Regardless, she called the case “extremely important.”

“They knew that these chemicals they produced caused cancer,” she said. “That’s the whole point. PCBs are getting into the watersheds, and Monsanto has the responsibility to clean it up.”

In a personal blog post, Waldref said the cost of cleanup shouldn’t fall on the city’s utility ratepayers.

“The responsibility should not fall on consumers and citizens to pay to clean up chemicals in our watershed that were known to be cancer-causing and impossible to contain,” Waldref wrote. “The law firms we are working with have had other successful cases against Monsanto regarding PCBs in paint and window products in schools and I’m hopeful we can all be successful in these cases.”

Charla Lord, a Monsanto spokeswoman, praised the ruling in a statement, and suggested the lawsuits were being done as a marketing and money-generating campaign by the two law firms representing the many cities.

“We’re pleased with the judge’s ruling and believe neither the number of cities nor their novel legal strategy speaks to the viability of the claims,” Lord said. “The cities that have joined this litigation have all been approached by the same two law firms, which are marketing these public nuisance lawsuits regionally and nationally on a contingency fee basis and telling the cities that these novel cases will cost them nothing but may serve as a vehicle to address the costs of new regulations imposed by the state on cities decades after Monsanto stopped manufacturing PCBs.”

Lord also argued the cases didn’t apply to Monsanto because the company wasn’t the one that “actively caused and deposited chemicals in the bays and are among those who polluted the property.”

Waldref said she still expected the cities to prevail against the company, but it may take longer.

“I think if we consolidate, we get a faster ruling,” she said. “I think we have a good case to be made. It just means a little more work.”

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