In a complaint filed in federal court, Seattle becomes the sixth Western city to sue Monsanto.
The city of Seattle is suing to make Monsanto pay for cleanup of toxic PCBs from the city’s drainage system and the Duwamish River.
Monsanto was the sole producer of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) for commercial use in the U.S. from 1935 to 1977, and continued to profit from their sale for years even as its officials knew the chemicals were polluting the environment, causing harm to people and wildlife, said Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes.
“When the profit motive overtakes concern for the environment, this is the kind of disaster that happens,” Holmes said Tuesday. “I’m proud to hold Monsanto accountable.”
Seattle is the sixth major city in the West to seek cleanup damages from the company, joining San Jose, Oakland, Berkeley, San Diego and Spokane, which Holmes said gave him the idea to file the federal lawsuit.
The amount of damages requested isn’t specified and would be determined in the course of the lawsuit, said Laura Wishik, section director for environmental protection in the Seattle City Attorney’s Office.
Targeted is PCB contamination in 20,000 acres that drain to the Lower Duwamish, a federal Superfund site. Also at issue are areas that drain to the East Waterway, adjacent to Harbor Island, a separate Superfund site.
PCBs are the most widespread contaminant in Lower Duwamish sediments. City inspections have detected PCBs in 82 percent of samples of sediment in drainage pipes, according to the complaint.
Resident fish and shellfish in the Lower Duwamish Waterway are so contaminated by PCBs, the state Health Department advises there is no safe amount to eat — yet people keep right on fishing.
Seattle is working under a consent decree issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Washington Department of Ecology to build a $27 million treatment plant to remove pollutants, including PCBs, from stormwater from only 1.25 percent of the 20,000 acres that drain to the Lower Duwamish. That is just the beginning of costs to clean up the ubiquitous, persistent pollution caused by widespread use of PCBs.
More on the Duwamish
- Man swims 55 miles of Duwamish River, finds it’s ‘still alive’ (September 2015)
- Mammoth $342 million cleanup ahead for fouled Duwamish River (December 2014)
- Decades of toxic waste dredged from the Duwamish (March 2014)
- Pacific NW Magazine: Reclaiming the Duwamish River (April 2011)
Found globally in bays, oceans, rivers, streams, oil and air, the chemicals harm fish, birds and other animals, and damage human immune, reproductive, nervous and endocrine systems. PCBs are also known to cause cancer.
Drinking water for the city of Seattle comes from the high Cascade mountains, and is clean and healthful to drink. It is not a subject of the lawsuit.
According to the complaint, Monsanto officials knew for decades that PCBs were toxic and widely contaminating the environment. “Monsanto concealed these facts and continued producing PCBs,” the complaint states.
Wishik said it could be years before Seattle sees a check from the company. But going after the global agricultural chemical behemoth, based in St. Louis, Mo., to pay its share of cleanup costs in the Duwamish is the right thing to do, she said. Those costs total $342 million in the Lower Duwamish, in addition to the treatment plant, with more likely to come.
“PCBs are very, very horrible,” Wishik said. “Monsanto created them, and manufactured them. We wouldn’t be dealing with this if they did not manufacture them, and keep manufacturing them.
“Obviously corporations are out to make money,” Wishik said. “But they had internal committees set up to deal with the problem that these chemicals are toxic, and they are getting into the environment, how should they deal with that in ways that make us more money.”
Documents uncovered in the Spokane case revealed the company’s own medical department warned in 1955 that the chemicals were so toxic, by either ingestion or inhalation, that employees making PCBs could be harmed just from eating lunches contaminated from the chemical fumes or residue on workers’ hands.
Named as plaintiffs in the suit are Monsanto Company, plus Solutia Inc. and Pharmacia Corp., which were spun off through a series of reorganizations of the company. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington in Seattle.
Monsanto on Tuesday denied responsibility for the pollution.
“We are reviewing the lawsuit and its allegations. However Monsanto is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter,” wrote Charla Lord for Monsanto Company in an email in response to questions from The Seattle Times. “PCBs sold at the time were a lawful and useful product that was then incorporated by third parties into other useful products. If improper disposal or other improper uses allowed for necessary clean up costs, then these other third parties would bear responsibility for these costs.”
Seattle’s suit is just one of many against the company in connection with PCBs and their effect on the environment and human health, including a suit in St. Louis County Circuit Court by several people last year who claimed to have developed cancer after being exposed to PCBs made by Monsanto. A jury found in favor of Monsanto.
But in other suits, Monsanto has paid damages through settlements in personal-injury cases. In Anniston, Ala., Monsanto in 2003 agreed to pay $700 million to settle claims brought by more than 20,000 residents over PCB contamination. An attorney for the homeowners said internal documents showed the company was aware of health hazards related to PCBs for decades and did nothing to warn the public.
The cluster of lawsuits recently filed by cities in the West follows requirements under the federal Clean Water Act under which cities must reduce discharges of contaminants to waterways, at great public expense. The city of Seattle has been attacking the problem in the Lower Duwamish drainage areas since 2003, and the state Department of Ecology is now requiring more work, even as the city is subject to requirements under the consent decree with EPA and Ecology as to combined sewer overflows.
It all adds up to regulatory requirements piling on work and cost. That has Seattle, among other cities, looking for damages to pay for the cleanup from the company that profited from the pollution. “We are taking action to recover the significant costs of cleaning up after Monsanto and to make clear that Seattle will stand up against contamination that threatens our environment,” Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said in a statement.
On its website, the company says it voluntarily stopped manufacturing the chemicals in 1977. The company distances itself from its PCB manufacturing past, stating that in 2002, following a series of mergers and reorganizations, Monsanto became an independent, publicly held agricultural company.
The current Monsanto Co. manages “several legacy liabilities, which in most cases have nothing to do with the company’s current business,” the company states on its website. “Regardless, we take our commitments seriously and strive to resolve these liabilities responsibly.”
PCBs were widely used around the world for decades, primarily to insulate and cool electrical equipment and prevent electrical fires. The chemicals were required by government building codes for years because of their effective fire-resistance properties, Monsanto notes on its website. That same resistance is what makes the chemicals so persistent in the environment.
Also used in paint, caulking, plasticizers, sealants, inks and lubricants, PCBs leach, leak, off-gas, and escape their intended applications, contaminating runoff during storms and rain, according to Seattle’s complaint.
Used in everything from hydraulic systems to lighting and cable insulation, PCBs were sold to manufacturers such as General Electric and Westinghouse that incorporated the chemicals into their products. Monsanto, founded in 1901, manufactured the chemicals, trade-named Aroclors, in the U.S. from 1935 until 1977.
The EPA banned manufacture and distribution of PCBs for nearly all uses in 1979.