A paragraph inserted into a large chemical safety bill could protect the agrochemical giant Monsanto from a lawsuit initiated by the city of Spokane, a move that could pit Spokane Mayor David Condon against his former boss, U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers.
The paragraph was added in the U.S. House of Representatives to a bill that would replace the Toxic Substances Control Act, according to an article in the New York Times. The Times called the addition a “legislative gift.”
If approved, the legislation may shield the company from a lawsuit initiated last August by Spokane, which alleged Monsanto sold chemicals for decades that it knew were a danger to human and environmental health, and is at fault for polluting the Spokane River.
Spokane is in the midst of a $300 million project to prevent pollutants from entering the river.
Two versions of the bill passed the House and Senate last year, but major differences between them need to be resolved. Congressional staffers said the addition of the language was not a gift to Monsanto, according to the New York Times.
Still, only Monsanto is affected by the paragraph, specifically regarding its production of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
“A critical paragraph added to the House bill in late May made sure past regulatory requirements by the E.P.A. would continue to disqualify legal claims, and it specifically referred to the section of the 1976 toxic chemical law governing PCBs, giving Monsanto clearer authority in the future to ask judges to dismiss lawsuits filed against it,” the New York Times reported.
In a statement, Monsanto said it “did not ask for any language to be included” in the bill.
“Monsanto does not consider either version of the bill, with respect to the effect on preemption, to be a ‘gift,’ ” the company said in a lengthy response to the New York Times on its website. “Both versions of the bill narrow the ability of a corporation to rely upon compliance with federal (Toxic Substances Control Act) regulation as the sole law governing its regulated chemicals. The House version simply preserves the framework that has been in effect since passage of TSCA for chemicals that were regulated before any changes to the legislation.”
The paragraph that could affect Spokane’s litigation against Monsanto was reportedly inserted by Republican staff members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. McMorris Rodgers, who represents Eastern Washington, is one of 31 Republican members on that committee.
McMorris Rodgers wasn’t aware of a Monsanto connection when she voted for the bill, which passed the House 398 to 1, said Ian Field, her spokesman. She’s reviewing the impact of the added paragraph, he said.
Condon, who has asserted many times that he “directs all legal actions for the city,” worked for McMorris Rodgers as her district director from 2005-11, when he was elected mayor.
Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said it was unclear how the legislation would affect the city’s lawsuit, and would not comment on Condon’s influence with McMorris Rodgers.
“We’re just learning of this and trying to gather more information, and we’ll be in contact with our federal delegation,” Coddington said, noting that Condon will be in the nation’s capital later this month to meet with local lawmakers.
“The city’s position hasn’t changed,” Coddington said of the lawsuit and the effort to “protect utility ratepayers.”
“We believe (Monsanto) bears responsibility for the contamination it knew it was causing,” Coddington said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is “aware of concerns in the House version of the TSCA Modernization Act, including the legal liability shield,” according to her spokesman, Bryan Watt. He said Cantwell is working to have the Monsanto provision dropped during the conference process rectifying the versions of the bills.
Kerry Arndt, a spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, said the legislation “wasn’t the bill she would’ve written on her own,” but Murray plans to “make improvements and make the bill stronger.”
Marlene Feist, a city spokeswoman, said the firms directing the city’s lawsuit know of the legislation.
“They are aware of it and are looking into what they can do,” Feist said, adding that the firms’ lawyers are speaking with lawmakers “about allowing this lawsuit to move forward.”
Feist reiterated the city’s position in regard to Monsanto and PCBs.
“Monsanto bears responsibility there,” she said. “We’re not a rich community, and we’re making a significant investment into the river. If we can get some help in making an impact, that would be important to us.”
Council President Ben Stuckart said he was sure the legislation “wouldn’t affect our lawsuit” because it comes after the suit was filed. Still, he said he would “work to try and get this legislation stopped so that other cities are able to recover damages.”
Stuckart said he wouldn’t fault McMorris Rodgers since it’s unclear if she was even aware the paragraph had been inserted into the pending legislation, which passed unanimously out of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
“I won’t draw any conclusions till they vote,” he said. “I hope she would vote to protect the largest river in her district, and not vote for corporate interests over citizen interests.”
McMorris Rodgers did vote for the House version of the bill, which is called the TSCA Modernization Act of 2015, but most lawmakers agree that the pending legislation is an improvement over the existing act.
McMorris Rodgers received a $500 campaign contribution from Monsanto in 2006, according to OpenSecrets.org.
Stuckart noted Condon once worked for McMorris Rodgers, and said he would urge him to press her to protect Spokane’s interests.
“I hope he uses his influence as a former employee of her office to represent the citizens of Spokane,” Stuckart said.
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 produced nearly 1.25 billion pounds of PCBs sold in the U.S., commonly 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 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.
When it filed last year, Spokane joined San Diego and San Jose, California, in their suits against the company. Since then, Seattle and the California cities of Oakland and Berkeley have decided to seek damages from the company.
All cities are considering combining their lawsuits, a request that will be heard this month by the U.S. District Court of Northern California before Judge Edward J. Davila. City Attorney Nancy Isserlis and Councilwoman Amber Waldref will attend the hearing.
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