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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Maker of Roundup agrees to pay $648 million to settle lawsuits from Spokane, other cities over water pollution

Raylene Gennett, Storm Water District Supervisor, right, and Dale Arnold, wastewater management director left, stand atop Spokane’s largest stormwater pipe in this November 2012 photo.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

A lawsuit filed by the city of Spokane against the manufacturer of a likely carcinogenic chemical that continues to leach into the Spokane River is part of a global settlement for multiple chemicals announced Wednesday totaling billions of dollars.

Bayer AG, which acquired the company Monsanto in 2018, announced it was resolving several lawsuits filed nationwide, including Spokane’s lawsuit alleging ongoing contamination of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. That lawsuit, originally filed in 2015, was scheduled to go to trial next month in Richland.

Bayer will pay a dedicated $95 million to address PCB contamination in Washington state and an additional $648 million to cities and local governments, including Spokane, that filed their own lawsuits against the chemical manufacturer, according to a news release from the law firm Baron & Budd, which has been handling the litigation for the city of Spokane.

“What this means for Spokane is they have some funds that they didn’t have before to help manage and continue to deal with those PCBs moving forward,” said John Fiske, a shareholder at Baron & Budd, in an interview Wednesday.

Of that money, $550 million has been set aside specifically for clean-up efforts, according to settlement documents filed in the federal courts in California that will need to be approved by a judge before the settlement is finalized. That money will be split between more than 2,500 public entities that filed legal action against Monsanto seeking damages related to PCBs.

The city of Spokane, along with four other entities with permits to dump wastewater into the Spokane River, are in the middle of what has become a complicated process to set standards for PCB limits in waste water. The city sold $200 million in what are known as green bonds in 2014 to raise money for construction projects intended to reduce the amount of pollutants that flow directly into the river, including massive subterranean tanks to trap run-off and increased filtration at the city’s wastewater treatment plant northwest of town.

Those projects are nearing completion, but there are other priorities the city has identified to further reduce run-off. That includes a system to treat stormwater that falls on a large swath of north Spokane.

Marlene Feist, strategic development director for the city’s Utilities division, said it wasn’t yet clear exactly how much money Spokane would receive as part of the settlement, but estimated it would be “several million dollars.” That money can be used for building projects that would otherwise fall on utility ratepayers to pay for, Feist said.

“We were going to do that work, anyway,” Feist said. “It will just be Monsanto dollars, instead of city of Spokane ratepayer dollars.”

Bayer will pay nearly $11 billion to resolve lawsuits surrounding three Monsanto products. Those damages will be paid in installments, $5 billion this year and next year, with the balance paid in 2022. The settlements will also resolve legal claims on the harmful effects of Roundup, a weedkiller linked to cancer, and dicamba, a spray herbicide that’s been linked to crop damage.

The manufacture of PCBs was banned in the U.S. in 1979. They were widely used as insulating fluids in heavy-duty electrical equipment. The Environmental Protection Agency says data strongly suggests PCBs are “probable human carcinogens.” PCBs have also been linked to negative effects on the immune, nervous and endocrine systems.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward heralded the settlement in a statement Wednesday.

“This national resolution will provide more than 2,500 local communities funds for monitoring, mitigation, and remediation efforts to manage PCBs in stormwater, stormwater systems, sediments, and water bodies,” Woodward said . “The Spokane River is a precious regional asset, and the City has been proud to lead efforts to protect it and to protect waters throughout the state and nation.”

The $95 million the state will receive is separate from the lawsuit filed by the city of Spokane, the office of Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson confirmed Wednesday. Of that money, at least $60 million will go into the general fund, said Ferguson who brought suit against the company in 2016.

“I urge the Legislature to use this historic recovery to help repair the damage PCBs have inflicted on our environment and public health in Washington state,” Ferguson said in the statement. “This recovery should be invested in our environment.”

Fiske credited Spokane with being “at the tip of the spear” in the legal action against Monsanto, which he believed to be the first settlement in which a chemical manufacturer agreed to pay cleanup damages for storm water runoff. Other environmental settlements have centered around drinking water.