City Council votes to sue Monsanto Company over cleanup costs of chemical pollutants

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Berkeley City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to sue Monsanto Company and two subsidiary companies over alleged cleanup costs of chemical water pollutants.

Berkeley will be filing a separate suit from that of the other cities that are suing, which include Oakland, San Jose and San Diego.

“The company that is responsible for this vast contamination should bear the burden of cleaning up our environment, not the taxpayers of Oakland and California,” said Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker in a press release. “Monsanto knew that its products posed a significant threat to human and environmental health around the world. However, the company chose profits over protecting people, and American cities and citizens are still suffering the consequences.”

According to court documents filed by the city of Oakland, Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, in the United States for approximately 50 years — from 1935 to 1979 — before Congress banned them for endangering human and environmental health. The company allegedly knew for decades that PCBs were toxic and were contaminating the surrounding environment but concealed this information until Congress banned the chemicals in 1979.

Monsanto spokesperson Charla Lord said in an email, however, that the company manufactured PCBs only until 1977, voluntarily ceasing production about two years before the manufacture of PCBs in the United States was banned.

The three companies involved — the agricultural products business Monsanto Company, the chemical products business Solutia Inc. and the pharmaceuticals business Pharmacia Corporation — were originally one company known as Monsanto.

PCBs have been detected in the San Francisco Bay, which will allegedly cost Bay Area cities billions of dollars in total to clean up. In Berkeley alone, the cleanup will cost tens of millions of taxpayer dollars, alleged Councilmember Kriss Worthington.

Worthington hopes the lawsuit will decrease the cost to taxpayers for cleanup of chemical pollutants and “discourage” corporations from “doing more damage with more chemicals.”

PCBs are man-made chemical compounds that were incorporated in electrical equipment, plastics and construction materials for fire protection and safety purposes, acc0rding to Lord.

According to the court documents, PCBs are “notorious” environmental contaminants known to be toxic to fish, marine mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds, and human exposure to PCBs is associated with cancer and “adverse” developmental and reproductive effects.

It is unlikely that Monsanto will have to pay all the costs of alleged damage, but Worthington said it is only fair that the company pays for at least part of the process.

Worthington said that an important part of the Berkeley lawsuit is that the city is alleging that Monsanto knowingly caused a nuisance. According to Oakland court documents, Monsanto knew about the negative environmental impact of the chemicals as early as 1937.

“It’s interesting that Monsanto is saying that it’s in their defense that they told people it was dangerous,” Worthington said. “We think that actually makes them more liable legally.”

Berkeley is filing the suit as a nuisance lawsuit — similar to lawsuits filed against lead paint companies for negative environmental impacts — rather than as a violation of environmental law.

A judge might end up consolidating the cases, according to Worthington, but Berkeley is filing a separate case to introduce details of specific negative effects in Berkeley.

Under several agreements made between Solutia, Pharmacia and Monsanto several years ago, Monsanto assumed financial responsibility for certain tort litigation. Essentially, Worthington said, this means that “it appears Monsanto Corporation has assumed liabilities for both of their former subsidiaries.” The city, however, is “suing all three to be safe,” he added.

Lord said third-party companies, not Monsanto, should be held responsible for the pollution of waterways.

“Monsanto is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter,” Lord said. “PCBs sold at the time were a lawful and useful product that was then incorporated by third parties into other useful products. If those companies or other third parties improperly disposed of products or improperly used any material which created the need for the cleanup, then they bear responsibility for the costs.”

Contact Michelle Leung at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @michellesleung.