The city of Spokane is expected to receive “several million dollars” from a legal settlement with the parent company of Monsanto over the decadeslong production of chemicals that have polluted the Spokane River.
U.S. District Court Judge Fernando M. Olguin, of the Central District of California, signed an order Nov. 19 awarding 2,442 government entities nationwide a portion of a $537.5 million settlement in a class action brought against Monsanto. The company for years sold products containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that leached into the Spokane River and other waterways. The products were sold under the brand name Aroclor, which was discontinued in the 1970s. But the PCBs do not break down naturally and remain in the waterway.
A preliminary agreement to settle the lawsuit had been filed in June 2020, but it took more than two years for the parties to submit a compensation plan to which Olguin could agree.
Parties have until the middle of December to notify the court whether they will opt out of the settlement and seek a deal on their own, said Marlene Feist, public works director for the city of Spokane. That could change the calculation for how much Spokane will receive, but the total should be “several million dollars,” she said.
“We’re excited about the whole area, that the community is getting money for this,” Feist said, noting that payments will also be made to Spokane County and the city of Spokane Valley.
Spokane is one of the named plaintiffs in the case, after initially filing a lawsuit against the former agrichemical giant in November 2015. In that lawsuit, the city alleged Monsanto was responsible for the high level of PCBs found in the Spokane River, findings that have already prompted years of protracted legal arguments between the city and different presidential administrations about the acceptable level of the chemicals in water discharged to the Spokane River, primarily through stormwater.
“PCBs are one of the largest water contaminants in the world,” said John Fiske, co-lead of class counsel in the action for the firm Baron & Budd that litigated the case on behalf of Spokane and other cities. “These funds are intended to monitor and remove PCBs from stormwater that contaminates water.”
The money from the settlement is divided into different sums for specific purposes. Of the total amount, $250 million has been set aside for governments that have incurred costs to meet what are known as total maximum daily loads, or TMDLs, for the chemical in their waterways. The Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of establishing a TMDL for dischargers into the Spokane River as part of a legal agreement in a lawsuit brought by several conservation groups. The deadline is September 2024.
Bayer AG, a German company, finished its acquisition of Monsanto for $63 billion in 2018 and has been defending in several legacy lawsuits against Monsanto and its products in the intervening years. Reuters reported in September that Bayer had won five consecutive jury trials seeking damages related to the weedkiller Roundup and claims it caused cancer.
Feist said once the city knows exactly how much it’s getting, City Hall can begin to make plans on projects the dollars could fund. The target will be stormwater runoff, and the city already has begun work to address pollution coming from the Cochran basin, an area of north Spokane where stormwater runoff still feeds directly into the river without being treated.
“We have a lot of options,” Feist said. “It’s not like it has to be on one specific project, it just needs to mitigate the harm.”
Feist said the money could be spent “over a few years.”