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Portland Becomes 7th City to Sue Monsanto Over PCB Contamination

Portland, Oregon is suing Monsanto over contaminating the city's waterways with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a highly toxic group of chemicals that endangers human health and the environment.

Downtown Portland and the Steel Bridge from the east side of the Willamette. The city has spent more than $1 billion cleaning up pollution in the river. Photo credit: Flickr

Portland City Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday authorizing city attorney Tracy Reeve to sue the biotech giant.

“Portland’s elected officials are committed to holding Monsanto accountable for its apparent decision to favor profits over ecological and human health," Reeve said in a statement. "Monsanto profited from selling PCBs for decades and needs to take responsibility for cleaning up after the mess it created.”

Map showing general area of concern for pollution at the Portland Harbor Superfund site. Photo credit: EPA

Portland is now the seventh West Coast city to sue Monsanto over PCB contamination, joining SeattleSpokane, BerkeleySan DiegoSan Jose and Oakland.

According to a statement from the plaintiff's law firm Gomez Trial Attorneys, Portland has spent and will continue to spend significant public funds to investigate and clean up PCB contamination in the Willamette River and Columbia Slough. The chemical is also one of the main targets of the massive Portland Harbor Superfund cleanup project.

Travis Williams, executive director of Willamette Riverkeeper, explained to KGW: “In our case there are PCBs widely distributed throughout Portland Harbor and that’s one of the main reasons it was listed as a superfund site back in December of 2000.”

The city has spent more than $1 billion cleaning up the Willamette, Portland mayor Charlie Hales told OPB.

“The citizens of Portland dug deep in order to pay for cleaning up our mess, and other businesses should be held to that standard,” Hales added.

As EcoWatch mentioned recently, PCBs were once used to insulate electronics decades ago. Before switching operations to agriculture, Monsanto was the sole manufacturer of the compound, raking a reported $22 million in business a year.

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The law firm said that Monsanto manufactured more than 1 billion pounds of PCBs between the 1930s and the 1970s, adding that Monsanto’s own documents show that it continued to sell PCBs long after it allegedly knew of the dangers they presented to human health and the natural environment.

As the Portland Tribune reported:

Documents show Monsanto knew as far back as 1969 that PCBs led to contamination of fish, oysters and birds, said John Fiske, a senior trial attorney with Gomez Trial Attorneys, in a presentation before the City Council on Wednesday. The company realized its product might cause “global contamination,” Fiske said, yet continued to peddle its product, “choosing profits over environmental health.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned PCBs in 1979, due to its link to birth defects and cancer in laboratory animals. PCBs can also have adverse skin and liver effects in humans. PCBs linger in the environment for many decades.

The EPA estimates that 150 million pounds of the chemicals are dispersed throughout the environment, including air and water supplies; an additional 290 million pounds are located in landfills in this country.

Monsanto stopped production of PCBs in 1977 over human health and environmental concerns. The St. Louis-based company released a statement following Portland's move:

We are reviewing the lawsuit and its allegations. However, Monsanto is not responsible for the costs alleged in this matter. Monsanto today, and for the last decade, has been focused solely on agriculture, but we share a name with a company that dates back to 1901.

That company manufactured and sold PCBs that at the time were a lawful and useful product that were then incorporated by third parties into other useful products. Various municipalities built landfills on their bays and operated them for decades to deposit city waste and PCB-containing products into those waterfront landfills. Manufacturing and industrial facilities also operated in these areas, contributing to PCBs in the general area. If the third-party disposal or municipal disposal practices of the past have led four decades later to the state’s development of lawful limits on future PCB discharges into various bays and rivers through storm water, then those third parties and municipal landfill operators bear responsibility for these additional costs.

The seven cities suing Monsanto each filed separate lawsuits against Monsanto in federal court, but will be represented by the same two law firms, California-based Gomez Trial Lawyers and Texas-based Baron & Budd. According to the Portland Tribune, the firms plan to file a motion March 31 in a federal court in Santa Barbara, California, to ask that one judge handle all seven cases.

Meanwhile, a current House bill could give Monsanto permanent immunity from liability for injuries caused by PCBs. The New York Times reported last month that Republicans in Congress have inserted a clause into the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) reauthorization bill that would effectively exempt Monsanto from liability for injuries caused by PCBs.

Environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., who has sparred over PCBs for three decades, wrote this week that the “so-called "Monsanto Rider" would shield the chemical colossus from thousands of lawsuits by cities, towns, school districts and individuals, who have been injured by exposure to PCBs.

“If Monsanto gets its way, the American people will pay a high price for corporate greed and political corruption,” Kennedy said.

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