Becoming the seventh city to sue Monsanto over contaminated waterways, Portland passed a resolution last week authorizing city attorney Tracy Reeve to take the biotech company to federal court over its decades-long dispersal of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). The city has spent more than $1 billion cleaning up PCB pollution in the Willamette River, and now it wants the agrochemical giant it deems responsible for the contamination to pay for the damages.
For decades, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic group of chemicals, were used to insulate electronics, as well as in paint, transformers, caulk, and other items. Between the 1930s and 1970s, Monsanto, which was the sole manufacturer of the chemical compound, produced more than 1 billion pounds of PCBs. Now they are dispersed throughout the environment, littering air supplies, rivers, waterways, and landfills.
In a statement, city attorney Reeve said:
“Portland’s elected officials are committed to holding Monsanto accountable for its apparent decision to favor profits over ecological and human health. Monsanto profited from selling PCBs for decades and needs to take responsibility for cleaning up after the mess it created.”
Monsanto continues to maintain that it stopped producing PCBs when they were discovered the government to be toxic and banned by the EPA in 1979. But documents show the company knew “as far back as 1969 that PCBs led to contamination of fish, oysters and birds” and that “global contamination” posed a risk to human health. Portland’s lawsuit contends that the company actually knew as far back as 1937 that its product was hazardous to human health.
Monsanto disputes having prior knowledge of PCB health risks. In a statement, the St. Louis-based company responded to Portland’s lawsuit with a denial of any wrongdoing.
The company’s vice president of global strategy, Scott Partridge, stated:
“PCBs have not been produced in the U.S. for four decades, and the Port is now pursuing an experimental case on grounds never recognized in Oregon history.”
Curtis Robinhold, the Port’s deputy executive director, disagrees:
“Any decision to conceal facts about human health should have consequences. Monsanto reaped huge profits from the manufacture and sale of PCBs, and it is entirely appropriate for those faced with the cost of cleaning up this contamination to hold them accountable.”
Portland continues to spend money on cleaning up PCB contamination in the Willamette River and Columbia Slough. The Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup project has also targeted the chemical. Portland now joins six other West Coast cities — Seattle, Spokane, Berkeley, San Diego, San Jose and Oakland — in suing Monsanto.
However, these lawsuits may ultimately prove ineffective against a federal system that shields giant corporations from accountability. Monsanto is currently seeking permanent immunity from PCB liability. Last month, Congressional Republicans attempted to amend the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reauthorization bill with a clause that would render Monsanto non-liable for any PCB injuries.
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