The city of Seattle has filed a lawsuit against Monsanto in an effort to force the agrochemical giant to pay for the cleanup of toxic PCB’s (polychlorinated biphenyls) in the city’s drainage pipes and the Duwamish River. Filed on Monday, the Seattle PCB contamination lawsuit claims that Monsanto continued to market and sell PCBs for decades even though the company knew that the chemicals were toxic to humans and the environment.
Monsanto was the sole producer of PCB’s for commercial use in the U.S. from 1935 until 1977. In 1979, Congress banned PCB manufacturing and distribution in the Toxic Substances Control Act, citing environmental concerns. PCBs were used in a wide variety of commercial and industrial applications, most commonly as a means of insulating and cooling electrical equipment.
The chemicals could be found in transformers, capacitors, paint, inks, caulking, coolants, hydraulic fluids, plasticizers, sealants, and lubricants, among others. PCB’s have been known to leak or escape their intended applications, thus contaminating runoff during rains. They can also be released into the environment when waste is incinerated or moved to landfills.
The extent of PCB contamination in our environment is particularly troubling due to the fact that PCBs have been linked to a number of adverse health effects, including cancer and other serious health issues affecting the immune system, reproductive system, nervous system, and endocrine system, among others.
PCBs have also destroyed populations of fish, birds, and other wildlife. Local fish and shellfish from the Lower Duwamish River are so contaminated by PCB’s that Washington’s Health Department has said that any amount is unsafe for consumption.
According to the Seattle Times, PCB’s are the most widespread contaminant found in the sediment of the Lower Duwamish River. This section of the Duwamish is considered a federal Superfund site and ranks as one of the most toxic waterways in the United States. Seattle inspectors have found PCBs in roughly 82 percent of drainage pipe samples and 73 percent of street right-of-way catchment basin samples from Lower Duwamish drainage basins, according to the Seattle PCB contamination lawsuit.
Seattle PCB Contamination and the Federal Clean Water Act
With this latest lawsuit, Seattle becomes the sixth major U.S. city to sue Monsanto over PCB contamination, joining Berkeley, Oakland, San Diego, San Jose, and Spokane. The PCB lawsuits were filed on the heels of requirements under the federal Clean Water Act, which calls for cities to reduce the discharge of contaminants to waterways at the expense of the public.
Even though Seattle has been working to address the drainage problem in the Lower Duwamish since 2003, the regulatory requirements under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as well as Washington’s Department of Ecology, have compelled the city to seek damages from Monsanto to pay for the Seattle PCB contamination cleanup efforts. The EPA has estimated that it will cost a total of $342 million to clean the Lower Duwamish.
Seattle PCB Contamination Lawsuit
The Seattle PCB contamination lawsuit claims that Monsanto knew of scientific literature published as far back as the 1930s establishing that inhalation of the chemicals in industrial settings resulted in toxic systemic effects. Back then, Aroclor was the trade name of commercial PCB mixtures manufactured and sold by the Monsanto in the U.S.
In 1937, a Monsanto memorandum advised that “experimental work in animals shows that prolonged exposure to Aroclor vapors evolved at high temperatures or by repeated oral ingestion will lead to systemic toxic effects.” The memorandum goes on to say that “repeated bodily contact with the liquid Aroclors may lead to an acne-form skin eruption, according to the Seattle PCB contamination lawsuit.”
Documents from the Spokane lawsuit against Monsanto showed that in 1955, the company’s own medical department warned that PCB’s were so toxic—via ingestion or inhalation—that employees making the chemicals could be harmed by eating lunches contaminated by chemical fumes or residue on their hands.
Monsanto Claims No Responsibility for Seattle PCB Contamination
In response to the Seattle PCB contamination lawsuit, a spokesperson for Monsanto said the company is not responsible for the cleanup costs outlined in the allegations. Charla Lord of Monsanto Company told the Seattle Times, via email, that PCBs were a lawful and useful product incorporated by third parties into other useful products. She added that other third parties would bear responsibility for necessary clean up costs in the event of improper disposal or other improper uses.
In 2003, Monsanto agreed to settle a similar case brought by the city of Anniston, Alabama for a reported $700 million. The settlement resolved claims brought by more than 20,000 residents. The 2003 PCB lawsuit also claimed that Monsanto was aware for many years of the health hazards posed by PCB’s, but failed to warn the public.